SD H.B. 1260, introduced in South Dakota on January 26, 2012, is an act that would govern the use of genetic information. By any standards – and especially by legislative standards – the two-page bill (pdf) is succinct and should not be considered a state variation of GINA, as the bill does not speak to non-discrimination issues.
The bill’s brevity should not, however, be mistaken for a narrowness of purpose. In under 200 words, the South Dakota bill, if passed, would (1) grant property rights to individuals in their DNA samples and genetic information, (2) prohibit surreptitious testing, (3) call into question many forensic and law enforcement uses of DNA, (4) eliminate newborn blood spot screening without explicit consent and (5) impose broadly worded informed consent requirements on all collections and uses of individual genetic data. So much for inefficient government.
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Jennifer K. Wagner, J.D., Ph.D., is a solo-practicing attorney in State College, PA and a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Integration of Genetic Healthcare Technologies.
Thanks to technological innovation and a corresponding decline in cost, an increasing number of individuals are finding themselves with the task – or at least the opportunity – of accessing and interpreting their own genetic information. Over the past year, several state legislatures have taken notice.
Following on the heels of legislation passed or proposed in California, Vermont and Massachusetts, the Alabama House of Representatives is considering a bill by Representative Henry (pre-filed on January 23, 2012 and scheduled for first read on February 7, 2012) titled the “Genetic Information Privacy Act” (2012 AL H.B. 78). While the bill is relatively brief, its effects as written may reach far beyond those intended.
A New Bar for Informed Consent. First, the bill in its current form would require signature on separate informed consent documents to obtain, retain, or disclose genetic information. As drafted the bill would provide an exception for the insurance industry, permitting a single, integrated informed consent document if the genetic information is being obtained, retained, or disclosed “for the purpose of obtaining insurance” (Page 4, Line 25).
The movement to confer greater legal protection to individuals’ genetic information has added another participant. Last month, we examined newly introduced legislation in Massachusetts which, if passed, would create a “Genetic Bill of Rights,” significantly expanding Massachusetts residents’ personal property and privacy rights in their genetic information. Since then, in what the Council for Responsible Genetics has termed a “groundswell for genetic privacy building in states,” state legislators in both California and Vermont have introduced new legislation that would confer greater protection upon individuals’ genetic information.
What should we make of this three state “groundswell?” Although not identical in scope or substance to the Massachusetts Genetic Bill of Rights (“MA GBR”), both the Vermont and California proposals appear to reflect a concern (shared by the MA GBR) that, at least when it comes to the use and misuse of genetic information, the current system of federal oversight is inadequate. Then again, as the legislative findings section of the California proposal (pdf) puts it, perhaps “the current explosion in the science of genetics” simply “compels legislative action in this area.”
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.
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.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Amy Harmon, of The New York Times, reports that a long-running dispute between Arizona State University (ASU) and the Havasupai Indians over the allegedly improper research use of DNA from members of the tribe has been settled.
The research began two decades ago, ostensibly to search for a genetic variant that might be contributing to the increasing rate of diabetes in the tribe. The diabetes research proved unfruitful, but the blood donated by the Havasupai tribe members, and the DNA extracted from it, led to a number of follow-on research projects, grants and publications. It was that research – including searching tribe members’ DNA for variants linked to schizophrenia, and inferring the likely ancestral origins of the tribe’s founders – that led to lawsuits, millions in legal fees and, ultimately, the settlement.
Implications of the Havasupai Settlement. Harmon’s article provides a concise background to the dispute, and briefly describes the $700,000 settlement between ASU and the tribe to “remedy the wrong that was done.” Harmon and unnamed “legal experts” suggest that the settlement is significant because “it implied that the rights of research subjects can be violated when they are not fully informed about how their DNA might be used.”
In some respects, this is a trivial conclusion. One of the most important and well-known elements of the Common Rule – the regulatory regime that governs federally-funded human subjects research – is that researchers must seek, and participants provide, informed consent. Participants that are uninformed cannot provide valid consent and, thus, their rights as subjects are violated. In that respect, at least, the Havasupai case tells us nothing new. (I have not seen the settlement, but I doubt that it will (a) be made public or (b) contain an express admission of guilt from ASU, both factors that will limit its relevance to future similar scenarios.)
New research published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from Loukides et al. offers up a new method for preserving individual privacy while linking genomic and healthcare data. (“Anonymization of electronic medical records for validating genome-wide association studies.”) Daniel Cressey of Nature News and Katharine Gammon of Technology Review have concise (and free) summaries.
As we’ve written earlier (“Back to the Future: NIH to Revisit Genomic Data-Sharing Policy”), the ability to link – and to share – genotype and phenotype data (including medical records, particularly treatment and outcome data) will be essential to the development of the next generation of genomic research. One of the most common ways to link genotype and phenotype data is to combine genomic data with electronic medical records (EMRs). A particular patient’s EMR may contain everything from basic biographical information to family medical history to current diagnoses, including ICD codes. When it comes to associating genes with medical conditions, researchers rely on International Classification of Disease (ICD) codes to categorize individual patients by disease type and search for shared genetic variations that might play a causal role.
Cracking the Codes. Obviously identifying information (e.g., biographical information) is generally required to be removed pursuant to HIPAA regulations. ICD codes, however, are sometimes retained for purposes of genetic association research and, in some circumstances, a set of otherwise anonymous ICD codes pulled from an EMR can be traced backwards to identify the specific individual supplying the codes.
In late February, the state of Texas incinerated 5.3 million newborn bloodspots.
The background – the Genomics Law Report has had several posts (here and here) about the ongoing situation involving 5.3 million newborn bloodspots in a state biorepository in Texas. Often referred to as “residual” bloodspots, these are the tiny dried bloodspots left over after states conduct mandatory screening for specified diseases. State practices regarding retention of the residual bloodspots vary widely, with some destroying them promptly and others storing them indefinitely. Where post-screening use of the bloodspots occurs, the most common use is for quality assurance and quality control of the screening tests. Some states also permit the release of small sets of bloodspots for research.
Any such research must be done in compliance with the federal Common Rule applicable to clinical research and HIPAA, the federal medical privacy law. To simplify these laws’ complex requirements – what researchers must do depends on whether the samples or information will be made available in an identifiable or de-identified form. If a researcher receives identifiable information, then informed consents, privacy authorizations, and Institutional Review Board (IRB) reviews are mandatory. If the researcher receives only de-identified samples or information, no parental consent or privacy authorizations are required, although some states, including Texas, still insist on IRB review.
Last fall, the Genomics Law Report reviewed new medical confidentiality guidance from the U.K. General Medical Council (GMC) and wondered whether the “public interest” was a sufficient justification for the disclosure of patients’ genetic information without their consent.
Since that time, Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has tackled the same issue, publishing new privacy guidelines for health practitioners on the disclosure of genetic information (pdf).
In each case, the basic thrust of the guidance for medical practitioners is the same – there are certain circumstances where a patient’s genetic information may be disclosed against his or her wishes. However, the guidance from the GMC and the NHMRC does differ in several important respects.
First, while the GMC’s guidance applies to all doctors in the United Kingdom, the NHMRC’s guidance is restricted to Australian doctors in private practice. The NHMRC’s guidance also restricts its applicability to the disclosure of genetic information to living genetic relatives for medical purposes. Disclosures relating to unborn children (e.g., information related to embryos or carrier status), to legal but non-genetic relatives (e.g., adopted children or spouses) or for genetic research are all outside of the scope of the NHMRC’s guidelines. The GMC’s guidelines, on the other hand, contain no such specific limitations, referring only to the practitioner’s responsibility to balance the patient’s interests against those of others, and to disclose genetic or other information when justified in the public interest.
When deCODE genetics declared bankruptcy last fall it made a big splash. Geneticists pondered the future of the Icelandic biotechnology company’s one-of-a-kind genetic database and research platform, while investors and creditors wondered if they were going to be left out in the cold.
The initial bankruptcy buzz gave way over the past several months to a steady but relatively unremarkable stream of filings in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware (the case is No. 09-14063). Last week, however, brought a noteworthy docket entry, with the bankruptcy court approving the sale of most of deCODE genetics Inc.’s assets to Saga Investments LLC (pdf) – an investment company whose owners include Polaris Venture Partners, ARCH Venture Partners and genomic sequencing giant (and DTC genomics dabbler) Illumina.
A Holiday Fire-Sale? The sale, as approved by the bankruptcy court, sends substantially all of deCODE genetics Inc.’s assets – including its valuable genetic research engine that is driven in part by its access to its large Icelandic population database – to Saga Investments. As we described back in November, the bankruptcy sale process required a Stalking Horse bidder (Saga Investments) and a sale and auction process that, at least in theory, allowed other interested parties a chance to step in and make a bid for deCODE’s assets. No other bidders came forward, and the sale to Saga Investments was approved in just under two months.