Earlier this month an FDA advisory panel met for two days to consider a range of issues pertaining to clinical direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing. The non-voting advisory panel’s discussion (pdf), including whether certain genetic tests or categories of tests should be made available only through qualified healthcare professionals, sparked considerable controversy (see here for a collection of links) and confusion.
In response, the FDA agreed to reopen the public docket in order to receive additional public input on scientific issues concerning DTC genetic tests. The docket will reopen tomorrow and will remain open through May 2nd (pdf).
For those with an interest in the FDA’s oversight of DTC genetic testing, this is the first of several opportunities to be heard. In addition to the newly reopened public docket, the FDA has also announced its next “town hall discussion” with top officials from the Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), the FDA center responsible for the regulation of medical devices, including genetic tests. Both CDRH director Jeffrey Shuren and OIVD Director Alberto Gutierrez are scheduled to participate in a public question-and-answer session on May 5th in Orlando, FL. An additional town hall discussion is slated for San Francisco, CA later in the year. The Genomics Law Report will post additional details for that meeting as they are made available.
Earlier this week, I attended a public two-day meeting of the FDA’s Molecular and Clinical Genetics Panel (“MCGP”) in Gaithersburg, MD. The meeting was not particularly well attended (approximately 100 people were in the room) but the topic of the panel’s deliberations – how to appropriately regulate direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic tests – has sparked intense and ongoing public debate.
Numerous private and public conversations following the meeting indicate that there is considerable confusion about what actually happened at the meeting, including what the MCGP “recommended” to the FDA and what the FDA is likely to do with those recommendations. With that in mind, I followed up today with Dr. Alberto Gutierrez and Dr. Elizabeth Mansfield of the FDA’s Office of In Vitro Diagnostic Evaluation and Safety (OIVD) to seek clarification.
We have recently summarized efforts by two state legislatures to design regulatory schemes addressing issues raised by the proliferation of genetic information about individuals. New York’s effort addresses questions of insurance coverage for genetic testing. Massachusetts’ goes much further, calling itself a “Genetic Bill of Rights,”a title that accurately reflects its ambitions. In reviewing both of these proposals we have made the point that state-level legislation is no substitute for a coordinated and long-overdue federal-level approach.
But who will lead that coordinated federal effort? As we wrote recently, since the 2008 publication of a SACGHS report identifying major gaps in the regulation of genetic testing, that committee has been disbanded and no clear successor has emerged to champion these issues at the federal level. Last week, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), which was originally created by the NIH to support the Human Genome Project, and is today tasked with advancing the understanding and application of human genomics, updated its long-term strategic plan for the first time since 2003 (pdf). Although a “critical part” of the NHGRI’s mission is the “study of the ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI) of genome research,” the Institute’s new roadmap barely touches upon ELSI issues, and dispenses with “legal and public policy issues” in a single sentence by noting the need for “collaborations.”
In 2008 Congress passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). Although GINA is arguably “the first civil rights bill of the 21st century,” we have consistently reminded Genomics Law Report readers that passing GINA into law was only the first step.
As is the case with any piece of new legislation, even after a law is passed, considerable work remains to implement that law in practice. GINA is no different. Congress provided a basic framework designed to eliminate genetic discrimination, but many of the details of the law were left to regulatory agencies.
Two and a half years after GINA’s passage, the first part of that process is still underway. Last month the EEOC issued final rules and regulations implementing Title II of Gina, which applies to employers. (Final regulations for Title I of GINA, which applies to health insurers, have yet to be issued.) With the long-awaited arrival of the EEOC’s final regulations, the next step is to begin to apply those regulations.
MLB’s Genetic Testing Program. In July of 2009 The New York Times reported that Major League Baseball (MLB) had begun using genetic testing to verify the age and identity of Latin American baseball prospects. We analyzed MLB’s genetic testing program and the potential legal concerns raised by GINA in a pair of posts: “MLB Meets GINA” and “MLB’s Genetic Testing Program at the Plate Again.”
The business of genetic testing has progressed rapidly, if unevenly, over the past several years. Like any business based on new and rapidly developing science, the promise of new products and markets is counter-balanced by the obstacles of developing commercial products from raw science, fostering markets for those products, constructing profitable business models and overcoming novel legal and regulatory hurdles.
The Regulatory Environment Turns Negative. Until May 2010, the regulatory challenges in the genetic testing world seemed relatively benign, with most attention focused on patent and related IP issues (e.g. the Myriad gene patent litigation) and a challenging economic climate which made commercial operations and capital raising difficult for most businesses.
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.
From October 5 to December 8, 2009, the Genomics Law Report featured a series of thirty-six guest commentaries by industry, academic and thought leaders in the fields of genomics and personalized medicine. Entitled What ELSI is New?, the series, which we have organized into an e-book (pdf), asked each contributor to briefly respond to the following question: “What do you believe is the most important ethical, legal or social issue (ELSI) that must be addressed by the fields of genomics and/or personalized medicine?”
For better or worse, that’s where the instructions ended. The invited contributors identified the ELSI of their choice and discussed (or not) their rationale for so selecting as they saw fit. In addition to refraining from substantive editing, we intentionally avoided coordinating commentaries. Although we encouraged independent submissions from a variety of contributors and deprived them of any advance knowledge of what others in the series would say, one of our hopes was that consensus would begin to form around certain key ethical, legal and social issues.
To some degree this occurred. In collecting the series for the convenience of readers who would like to have all of the contributions in one place (pdf), we have ultimately settled on six broad topic headings for the commentaries
Read the rest of this entry »
As many readers are probably aware, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is presenting its second meeting on Personal Genomes next week. Freelance science writer and blogger Ginny Hughes will be speaking about the science and attitudes of genetic testing for psychiatric diseases. She’s prepared a very short survey on the topic so please help her out with a minute of your time.
Earlier this week the New York Times published a generally alarmist and one-sided piece (“Buyer Beware of Home DNA Tests”) advising consumers to steer clear of direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing and genomic services providers. The Times piece advises consumers to opt instead for a certified medical geneticist or genetic counselor even as it acknowledges, in the next paragraph, “a relative shortage of genetic counselors to clarify the significance of test results, and the fact that most practicing physicians lack the knowledge and training in genetics to interpret them properly.”
There’s no need for me to dissect and evaluate the arguments against DTC genomics made in the article. That task has been ably carried out by Daniel MacArthur, Blaine Bettinger and Jens McCabe. And it’s worth mentioning that the Times’ DTC genomics coverage has been relatively rich and varied (see, e.g., the now infamous “spit party” coverage, 23andMe co-founder Anne Wojicki’s Q&A on the Freakonomics blog or Steven Pinker’s excellent piece in the Times magazine, “My Genome, My Self”).
I do want to weigh in, however, on the potential consequence of the paternalistic medical establishment viewpoint that is advanced in the Times article, which paints DTC genomics as an industry lacking in analytic validity, clinical validity, clinical utility and (in what was a new concept for me) “ethical validity.” In failing to acknowledge any of the benefits provided by DTC genomics (which MacArthur, Bettinger and McCabe all highlight), the Times article invites readers (including legislators) to plausibly conclude that a legitimate solution might be simplyto restrict the business of genomic interpretation to traditional medical professionals. This is, in fact, exactly what Germany is proposing to do on a national level, but this type of genetic paternalism—largely a byproduct of a genetic exceptionalism perspective—is an extreme position, with most legislators taking a more measured approach, at least to date.
In April, the German Parliament approved the Human Genetic Examination Act. An English translation of the Act (pdf), which appears likely to be enacted, was recently posted to EuroGentest. (Special thanks to the PHG Foundation for locating the translation.) The Act is a clear example of what is known as “genetic exceptionalism”—the belief that genetic information is qualitatively different from other forms of personal or medical information—staking out a position near the paternalistic end of genetic regulation. Despite aspiring “to protect human dignity and ensure the individual right to self-determination via sufficient information,” the substance of the Act severely restricts individual freedom of action.
Strict Regulation of Genetic Examinations
The Act employs the terms “genetic examination” and “genetic analysis” in most of its provisions and defines these terms so broadly (§ 3) as to admit some uncertainty as to what would or would not constitute a genetic examination or genetic analysis. The vagueness of the definitions is mitigated to a degree by other defined terms that clarify that the Act’s provisions on genetic examinations and genetic analyses apply, in fact, to such examinations and analyses for medical purposes or for determining descent. The Act requires that “diagnostic” or “predictive” genetic examinations be ordered and interpreted by medical doctors having appropriate training and conducted only by institutions having the appropriate accreditation (§ 7). Such genetic examinations and genetic analyses may be conducted only upon the express, written and informed consent of the patient (§ 8).