Over the weekend, Steven L. Salzberg and Mihaela Pertea published a short but significant article in the journal Genome Biology. In “Do-it-yourself genetic testing,” Salzberg and Pertea describe the creation of “a computational screen that tests an individual’s genome for mutations in the BRCA genes, despite the fact that both are currently protected by patents.”
The software-based test can be downloaded from the website of the University of Maryland’s Center for Bioinformatics & Computational Biology, where Salzberg is the director and Pertea is on the faculty. The test purports to test genomic sequence data against a set of known mutations in the BRCA genes. In addition to representing a conceptual alternative for those seeking to evaluate their risk of hereditary breast cancer, the so-called “Salzberg Screen” is also a direct challenge to Myriad Genetics, the FDA and the existing legal, regulatory and policy regimes that continue to struggle to keep pace with the science and technology of genomics and personalized medicine.
Below, we examine how the Salzberg Screen fits—or does not—within the current legal and regulatory landscape, as well as what it signals for the future of do-it-yourself genomics, whole-genome sequencing and the law.
After several months of public drama, the University of California, Berkeley’s ambitious program to introduce its incoming freshmen to personalized medicine reached its denouement in late August.
As part of its program, Berkeley offered students the option to participate in genetic testing for three common genetic variants relevant to the body’s ability to metabolize milk products, alcohol and folic acid. The University’s original plan was to allow students to elect to receive the results of their tests as part of the program. Two weeks ago, however, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) ruled that if Berkeley wanted to return personalized genetic data to some of its freshmen, the testing must be conducted at the direction of a physician and performed by a licensed clinical laboratory. The significant logistical burden and cost of complying with the CDPH’s ruling forced Berkeley to modify its program. While some aspects of the program will go forward, no student will be able to access any personalized genetic information.
These are hectic days for the field of direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing. Every week, and sometimes every day, seems to bring a new development. Two weeks ago it was pharmacy giants Walgreens and CVS unveiling agreements with Pathway Genomics to offer Pathway’s genetic testing kits in drugstores nationwide, to which the FDA responded first by declaring such a strategy illegal and, shortly thereafter, launching an investigation. Last week, on the same day that the University of California, Berkeley announced it would be offering genetic tests to all incoming freshmen, a House of Representatives committee announced it was launching its own investigation into three prominent DTC genetic testing companies.
These developments reflect an uncertainty about the regulatory status of DTC genetic testing that is dramatic, although it is not new. In the summer of 2008, public health officials in New York and California sent warning letters to a number of DTC companies, including 23andMe and Navigenics (both targets of the current Congressional investigation). These state regulatory activities prompted concern that other states might follow suit, potentially subjecting DTC companies to the nightmare scenario of inconsistent state-by-state regulation. Nearly two years later, those particular concerns appear to be unfounded.