[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared as a guest column at Xconomy.]
Last week, New York State assemblyman J. Gary Pretlow introduced the descriptively named “act to amend the insurance law, in relation to requiring coverage for genetic testing in accident and health insurance polices.”
While not accompanied by a press release, or widely covered by media outlets, the bill merits close attention. While the substance of the bill is striking, its greater import lies in what it reveals about the United States’ current framework for personalized medicine regulation and in what the bill portends for the future of personalized medicine innovation and investment in this country.
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 second and final day of the FDA’s “Public Meeting on Oversight of Laboratory Developed Tests” (LDTs) brought forth many of the same comments and themes as the first. The primary difference was that, whereas the first day began with some comments from the Agency that provided a few hints about what the FDA has in store for LDTs, the second day was notable for the FDA’s near-total silence (although key officials were present and listening). Indeed, perhaps the loudest applause of the day was reserved for Sharon Terry of Genetic Alliance, who remarked that while she was glad the FDA had invited so many comments, “it would be nice [if the Agency] would say something back.”
Something Old, Something New. In addition to a reiteration of yesterday’s themes – especially the need for additional data demonstrating how LDTs are used and what harms, if any, they have inflicted on consumers and patients – a few new areas of discussion emerged over the course of the day. Those included:
Next week, the eyes of the personal genomics world will be focused on Washington, D.C., where the FDA and Congress will be meeting separately to consider the industry’s future. First, the FDA will convene a highly-anticipated public meeting (July 19th and 20th) to “discuss how the agency will oversee laboratory-developed tests (LDTs).” The FDA announced last month a proposal to develop a “risk-based” approach to oversight of all LDTs – a broad category that includes the vast majority of genetic tests, including high-complexity diagnostic tests (IVDMIAs) and direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic tests. Hot on the heels of the FDA meeting, on July 22nd, the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce – which two months ago launched its own investigation into the personal genomics industry – will hold a subcommittee hearing on “Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Testing and the Consequences to the Public Health.”1
While the genomics and personalized medicine communities anxiously await the upcoming FDA and Congressional meetings, yesterday the future of personal genomics was being debated on the opposite coast, at a policy forum in San Francisco entitled “Genomics and the Consumer: The Present and Future of Personalized Medicine” (pdf). The forum, which was hosted by California State Senator Alex Padilla (sponsor of S.B. 482, the so-called “bioinformatics bill”) and personal genomics company 23andMe, was filled with speculation from personal genomics investors, providers, customers and commentators about what the FDA and Congress might have in store for the field.
Are you ready for consumer genetics? Is your government?
Recent announcements of federal investigations into the budding direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing industry suggest that authorities are preparing to increase regulation of companies offering consumers access to their own genetic data. However, rather than rushing in to clamp down on the industry, regulators should slow down and focus, first, on understanding this complex field.
An increasing number of individuals are exploring their genetic information using tests purchased directly over the Internet. For between $100 and $1,000 consumers can purchase a saliva collection tube, spit in the tube, and mail it back to the company. A few weeks later the results are available online. One DTC genetics company, 23andMe, recently announced that it had provided its test to over 30,000 customers.
Genetic tests can provide the consumer with personalized information ranging from eye color, to ancestry, to risk of common diseases such as diabetes. Many companies include all of these traits and more in a single product examining hundreds of thousands of genetic markers. For the moment, these tests are available to anybody with a computer and a sense of curiosity. But that could all change.
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.
The direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing marketplace is on the move again. Just last week, in Mapping the Personal Genomics Landscape, I wrote that “predicting precisely which consumer services will be offered and how, if at all, they will be regulated, is impossible. All we know is that personal genomics consumers ten years from now are certain to have many, many more options than they do today.”
Turns out we only needed to wait a week – not a decade – for the landscape to shift again. Earlier today, DTC provider Pathway Genomics announced that it was partnering with drugstore giant Walgreens to offer its genetic testing service through most of that chain’s 7,500 stores.
Is Walgreens the Tipping Point for Personal Genomics Regulation? At first blush, this might appear to be nothing more than a creative product partnership between a fledgling personal genomics company and a giant drugstore chain. As it turns out, there are early indications that the Pathway/Walgreens partnership could turn out to be a tipping point in the regulation of personal genomics.
Last week saw the first annual Genomes, Environments, Traits (GET) Conference, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Timed to coincide with DNA Day 2010, the conference marked one decade since the publication of the draft consensus human genome sequence. The GET Conference was billed as “the last chance in history to collect everyone with a personal genome sequence on the same stage to share their experiences and discuss the important ways in which personal genomes will affect all of our lives in the coming years.” Not quite everyone with a public personal genome sequence attended – Craig Venter, Desmond Tutu, Glenn Close were all unavailable – but a majority of the genomic pioneers were in attendance and the GET Conference was a one-of-a-kind event.
For those who missed the GET Conference, several high quality recaps are available. The most detailed is A Day Among Genomes, by Carl Zimmer of Discover’s blog The Loom. More targeted reflections on the conference and related events come from Emily Singer of Technology Review summarzing key trends highlighted by the genome pioneers (Singer also has a related piece on the difficulties of understanding human genomes), David Dobbs of Neuron Culture on genomes, cool conferences, and what the hell to tell people about behavioral genes, and Turna Ray of Pharmacogenomics Reporter on the recent Myriad Genetics decision, and its impact on the business of patenting genes. If you’d like even more detail, the Twitter community provided real-time play-by-play.
While there’s no need for a further summary, the GET Conference does provide an occasion to look at the evolving personal genomics landscape in a more holistic fashion.
This morning the NIH announced plans to create a publicly accessible registry of genetic tests. The Genetic Testing Registry (GTR) is expected to be available in 2011 and will contain information voluntarily submitted by genetic test providers. The news is significant and carries implications for clinical genetic testing laboratories, personal genomics service providers and individual purchasers of genetic tests.
Many details of the GTR are yet to come, with NIH promising to “engage stakeholders – such as genetic test developers, test kit manufacturers, health care providers, patients and researchers – for their insights on the best way to collect and display test information.” While the GTR isn’t expected to launch until next year, and there is time to fill in the details, the questions and answers section of the GTR’s new website helpfully addresses several of the most important features of the registry.
This post looks at what we know about the GTR today, and considers what the GTR’s ultimate implementation might mean for the development and regulation of genetic testing. (Note that the inset orange questions, and the text that immediately follows each question, is taken directly from the GTR question and answer page.)