Updating the DTC Debate: Trial by Press Release, More FDA Letters, the Problem of Pleiotropy and New RUO Guidance
Later today I will join several colleagues here in Chicago, IL at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting for a panel discussion on Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Testing for Cancer: What Physicians Need to Know (pdf). (Daniel MacArthur and Misha Angrist will not be on the panel, although each joined us in authoring the pre-conference paper.)
This will, I believe, mark direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing’s formal debut at ASCO. It should also serve as another reminder that, despite its relatively small numbers (both in terms of dollars and customers), DTC genetic testing continues to exert an outsized influence when it comes to conversations about the future of genomic medicine. This is particularly true when the discussion turns to appropriate policy and regulatory oversight.
In advance of ASCO, here are several items of interest from the past few weeks in DTC genetic testing.
Social media – including Facebook, Twitter and other social networking platforms – are widely credited with fundamentally altering the nature of political discourse and, in some instances, credited as catalysts of political revolution. But social media’s ability to affect change need not be limited to politics, as recent developments in the arena of personalized medicine and consumer genomics continue to demonstrate.
Social Media as a Research Tool. Last month, PatientsLikeMe, an online patient community, made headlines with a study published in Nature Biotechnology in which the company analyzed self-reported data from nearly 600 patients to demonstrate that the use of lithium had no effect on the progression of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).
The study’s findings are valuable for ALS patients, who frequently experiment with unproven treatments in an attempt to slow progression of the degenerative disease for which there is not yet an effective therapy. But the long-term impact of the study’s methodological approach, which suggests “that data reported by patients over the internet may be useful for accelerating clinical discovery and evaluating the effectiveness of drugs already in use,” should be felt far beyond the ALS community.
In a few hours, the FDA will kick off a two-day public meeting to consider the future of clinical direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic tests. Few corners of the personal genomics landscape have generated as much attention from regulators, consumers and, especially, the media as DTC genetic testing. Thus, when the meeting was first announced last month, we applauded the FDA’s attempt to examine DTC’s unique set of issues separate from other larger and ongoing regulatory conversations, including whether and how to regulate the far more numerous category of laboratory developed tests (LDTs).
So just what should we expect from the next two-days? 2010 saw a flurry of DTC-related regulatory and legislative activity but, ultimately, little in the way of new oversight or concrete guidance. Both regulators (including the FDA) and industry appear to have responded in 2011 with a more measured approach, and this week’s meeting is an opportunity to thoroughly examine the state of DTC genetic testing and develop a clear, sensible strategy for future oversight of the industry.
Over at Genetic Future, Daniel MacArthur has already weighed in, adopting a tone of cautious optimism in advance of the DTC meeting. Meanwhile, with just a few hours left until the meeting kicks off, here are three key points I’ll be emphasizing in my own talk tomorrow morning (slides):
Last January we kicked off the new year by posing “Five Questions for Personal Genomics in 2010.” Here were the five questions we asked:
1. Will the $1,000 genome live up to the hype?
2. Will personal genomics stay DTC?
3. How will the ongoing gene patent debate affect the progress of personalized medicine?
4. When and where will the next regulatory shoe fall?
5. Who will control the data?
A year later the question that comes first to mind is, has anything really changed?
The short answer is no, not fundamentally, although that is not meant to imply that nothing of note happened in 2010. Far from it, as significant legal, regulatory, policy and technological developments continued to reshape the personal genomics landscape.
With that in mind, we welcome 2011 with a look back at the year that was, and a look ahead at what to expect from 2011 and beyond.
The clock has run out the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Genetics, Health, & Society (SACGHS). As reported by Turna Ray of Pharmacogenomics Reporter, the committee, which reports to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, will have its charter extended only long enough to conduct one final meeting next month.
According to Ray, SACGHS members were notified this week that Secretary Sebelius and NIH Director Francis Collins had determined that “the major topics related to genetic and genomic technologies had been successfully addressed by the committee through its comprehensive reports and recommendations over the years” and, for that reason, the decision was made “to sunset the committee’s charter.”
Meggan Bushee is a student at the Wake Forest University School of Law.
This past May, Congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) and Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-CA) re-introduced a personalized medicine bill to the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill was originally introduced in 2006 by then-Senator from Illinois Barack Obama. While HR 5440, also known as the Genomics and Personalized Medicine Act of 2010 (GPMA 2010), has retained the name of the bill originally introduced by Senator Obama, its approach to the regulation of personalized medicine has taken a new direction.
GPMA 2010 is the fourth version of the GPMA since the original bill of 2006, and includes the most ambitious initiatives of all of its predecessors. Why has the GPMA re-surfaced after three prior versions failed to make it out of committee? According to Representative Kennedy, the bill has been re-introduced in response to increased public awareness and use of genomic tests. At present, GPMA 2010 is before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. This is the same committee that recently conducted high-profile hearings to review the current state of the direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing registry.
[Editor’s Note: Newsweek science editor Mary Carmichael has a DNA Dilemma. As Carmichael debates whether to take a direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic test, she is soliciting feedback from the DTC community, from the public and from other commentators, including myself. At the end of the week, she will make her decision.
On Tuesday, Carmichael and five commentators examined what can be learned from a DTC genetic test. Yesterday, the topic was whether DTC genetic tests are trustworthy, and whether the results can be cause for concern. Today’s topic is the regulation of DTC genetic tests. In addition to several short commentaries, including a much shorter version of the piece below, Carmichael has also posted a lengthy interview with two top FDA officials on the subject of DTC genetic testing regulation.
The column below is an expanded version of what appears over at Newsweek. To see all of the commentaries in Carmichael’s series, click here.]
The recent media attention focused on direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic tests has left companies, investors, consumers and even regulators scrambling to figure out what comes next.
As the situation stands today, companies and their investors live in a climate of unprecedented regulatory uncertainty, causing delays in the introduction of new products and rendering an already inhospitable economic climate – for both fundraising and sales – even more challenging. Commentators and regulators caution consumers that some DTC genetic tests may be unreliable or, worse, harmful, but have yet to provide clear tools and guidelines for evaluating competing tests. And regulators, including the FDA, must balance their mandate to protect the health and safety of the public with that same public’s desire for autonomy, while also recognizing that innovation is a prerequisite for a healthcare system that must continue to improve outcomes while reducing costs.
Clearly, something must change. But what will that change be? And how will the field of DTC genetic testing evolve? Will DTC be able to continue its current business while regulators and companies engage in protracted negotiations? Will oversight weed out the “snake oil salesmen” and permit legitimate companies to flourish? Will it drive all genetic testing (temporarily) out of the hands of consumers?
Or will the field change in a dramatic and completely unexpected way?
Earlier this month CNN reported on the launch of a new program by the Chongqing Children’s Palace (CCP), in Chongqing, China, “that uses DNA testing to identify genetic gifts and predict the future.” In a story seemingly more appropriate for the Onion than for CNN, the article reports that Chinese scientists at the CCP are using the test, which is developed by the Shanghai Biochip Corporation, to “isolate eleven different genes” that will provide “information about a child’s IQ, emotional control, focus, memory, athletic ability and more.”
A quick note for any Chinese parents considering having this test performed on their children: you’re wasting your money (and we’re not talking small change – the test costs US$880).
The genetic variants that are currently known to affect traits such as athletic performance and height explain only a tiny fraction of the variation in these traits, so predictions made from genetic tests are extremely weak. In fact, for a trait such as height, parents can make substantially better predictions simply by measuring their own height than they can using the best that modern genetics has to offer…
…this is a scam, pure and simple, preying on parents’ willingness to believe in the power of science and to pay through the nose for anything they think might give their child an extra edge.
Although disappointing, the outlandish scientific claims made by CCP are unfortunately far from unique. Atlas Sports Genetics, which sells a $149 test that promises to predict a child’s natural athletic strengths, has been criticized for using genetic testing “to sell new versions of snake oil.” A Swiss-based DNA dating website, GenePartner, claims to measure the “genetic compatibility between two individuals and make an accurate prediction of the strength of their basis for a long-lasting and fulfilling romantic relationship” which, if true, would offer many a $99 insurance policy against vastly greater sums paid to divorce attorneys later in life.
Last December, some of the true heavyweights in the field of personal genomics convened for a two-day workshop cosponsored by the CDC and NIH to review the science and implementation of personal genomics. Participants included scientific luminaries (e.g., Francis Collins, George Church and Bob Green), personal genomics companies (e.g., 23andMe, Knome, Navigenics, deCODE Genetics and DNA Direct) and policy groups (e.g., Genetic Alliance, Personalized Medicine Coalition and Genetics and Public Policy Center). The workshop and its participants’ recommendations were summarized (pdf) late last month in the journal Genetics in Medicine.
The workshop focused on a review of the “scientific foundation for using personal genomics in risk assessment and disease prevention,” developing five specific recommendations for the future development and use of personal genomics.
1. Develop and implement scientific standards for personal genomics. Of primary importance was the development of scientific benchmarks for evaluating personal genomics testing. Heavily emphasized was the need to establish standards for measuring the clinical validity (how well a genetic variant identifies or predicts an individual’s clinical status) and clinical utility (the health and other benefits of a test balanced against its harms or costs) of personal genomics tests. The importance of voluntary industry guidelines (pdf), randomized clinical trials and economic analysis of personal genomics testing were all discussed.
This week, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) committed an additional $9.5 million to fund advancements in genome-sequencing in pursuit of its goal to “reduce the cost of sequencing a mammalian-sized genome to approximately $1,000.” Through its “Revolutionary Genome Sequencing Technologies—The $1,000 Genome” program, the NHGRI continues to drive a remarkable decline in the cost of genomic sequencing (pdf) that leading experts, including former NHGRI Director Francis Collins, predict will soon produce a $1,000 human genome.
Earlier this week, the GLR noted that the United States Patent and Trademark Office has seen fewer applications for genomics-related trademarks, which could be an indicator of a declining rate of innovation in that area. Whether or not that is actually the case, the NHGRI continues to do its part to keep the ideas – and the funds – flowing.