NEW PROPOSED REGULATIONS ON TESTING FROM THE FDA ARE LONG ON INTENTION AND SHORT ON DETAIL

On July 31st, the FDA announced its intention to regulate both laboratory developed tests (LDT”s) and in vitro diagnostic (IVD) companion devices, and it will soon be asking for public comment on the proposed regulations. Should genetic counselors be among the people commenting? Well yes, as the new rules are likely to affect genetics practice, since many of the tests that look at genetic susceptibility are LDT’s and could be subject to a premarket review by the FDA that will delay or deny the clinical availability of new tests, and a mandatory process of adverse result reporting. The impact will be felt most immediately in cancer settings, where genetic tests that look at tumor DNA for purposes of choosing targeted therapies or predicting prognosis are likely first candidates to draw FDA scrutiny, but eventually the new rules should affect a range of clinical specialties. At stake is finding the balance between too much regulation, wherein it becomes prohibitively difficult and expensive to introduce new tests that can help diagnose patients and personalize recommendations for screening and treatment, and too little regulation, wherein we suspect that our information on the accuracy and reliability of new tests is not adequately accurate or reliable (an ongoing issue, by the way, with non-invasive prenatal testing. See Katie Stoll’s post here and a study, new this week, suggesting that the dreaded false positive result may be more common than test makers have led us to believe).

 

A little background on the two closely related entities that are the focus of new regulations. LDT’s are what used to be called “home-brews”: tests that are used by a single lab and not marketed as a kit or a device. Somewhat by historical accident, LDT’s have come to exist in a regulatory grey area, effectively exempt from FDA oversight. The assumption behind this was that what went on in an individual lab affected only that lab’s patients and that no agency could track every one-off solution engineered by a mom-and-pop lab. As with everything else in 2014, the status quo has been disrupted by new technology – but in this instance the new technology isn’t the magic of Google or whole genome sequencing but overnight shipping. Yes, the world of genetic testing has been turned on its ear by the likes of UPS and Fed Ex.

 

In brief, now that the Pony Express has picked up its game, laboratories can test samples from all over the world in centralized locations with sophisticated and expensive testing capability that isn’t available back on the farm. At the same time, lab tests, including genetic tests and biomarkers like measures of gene expression, play an increasingly important role in making diagnoses and determining treatment. For this reason, the FDA has moved in its determined yet glacial manner to regulate a subset of tests that are considered high or medium risk – those tests which have the potential to alter medical care, and therefore have significant implications if the information they provide is incorrect. This risk-based approach is a measured step – it allows the FDA to continue to use discretion when tests are low risk or experimental or involve a rare disease for which there is no other test.

 

IVD companion diagnostics are tests developed to be used in conjunction with a drug or other therapy – tests that can be used to refine dosages or identify good candidates for a given therapy. Obviously pharmacogenetics is a subset of this broader category of companion testing. Again, the proposed regulatory framework would stratify the tests as high risk, moderate risk, low risk – requiring pre-market approval for higher risk tests, and allowing the agency to exercise “discretion” in low risk situations (discretion is FDA-speak for a wink and a nod). With regard to IVD diagnostics, the FDA intends not just that the tests on offer be confirmed as reliable, but is instituting the requirement that companion testing be included in the development of new therapies as a matter of course. In effect the government is mandating that all new therapies be individualized to the greatest extent possible: When an appropriate scientific rationale supports such an approach, FDA encourages the joint development of therapeutic products and diagnostic devices that are essential for the safe and effective use of those therapeutic products.” The age of personalized medicine is upon us, and the FDA is ON IT.

 

If all this sounds familiar, it only means that you have been paying attention. Since 2010, the FDA has been asserting publically that it has both the intention and the authority to regulate LDT’s and IVD’s. Going back even further, the Genomics and Personalized Medicine Act of 2006, introduced by then Senator Barack Obama, emphasized the development of companion diagnostics, calling on the National Academy of Sciences to recommend incentives and requiring the Institute of Medicine to improve “oversight and regulation of genetic tests.” While the bill was never passed, it is not surprising to see a similar emphasis under the current administration.

 

So, genetic counselors, are we for or against the proposed regulations? Probably the answer to that question is — yes. Like the FDA, most people seem to be in favor of some middle option – regulating everything is virtually impossible and regulating nothing is an appealing libertarian fantasy, but in fact it would put counselors in the uncomfortable position of having to rely on figures supplied by the companies who manufacture the tests. Careful observers like the Genetics and Public Policy Center have been calling for increased oversight for genetic testing for years. Their 2006 summary of a genetic testing quality initiative sums it up this way:

 

assessment of public attitudes shows that the public widely believes that the government regulates genetic tests to ensure their quality and, moreover, that the government should play this role. In fact, however, genetic tests are subject to very little governmental oversight when compared to other health care products. There is no formal approval procedure a laboratory has to go through before offering a new genetic test, and government requirements to ensure that genetic testing laboratories are getting the right answers to patients are minimal. Moreover, there is no government requirement that a test must be clinically valid – i.e., actually relate to a particular disease or risk of disease – in order to be sold.”

 

However, both the American Clinical Laboratory Association and the American Medical Association have reacted negatively to the proposed FDA regulatory strategy. The ACLA pushback comes as no surprise – few entities welcome idea of FDA regulation – and the organization has submitted a petition claiming that only CLIA and not the FDA had authority over LDT’s (the FDA rejects this). The more measured response of the AMA reflects the concerns of clinical care-givers, and may align with the attitude of many genetic counselors:

 

The draft FDA Framework for Oversight of Laboratory Developed Tests (LDTs) announced today, outlines a risk-based approach that raises a number of questions and concerns. 

The FDA proposal adds an additional layer of regulatory requirements which may result in patients losing access to timely life-saving diagnostic services and hinder advancements in the practice of medicine. 

The AMA is committed to ensuring that the proposal that is ultimately adopted by the FDA preserves rapid access to care and medical advancements. 

What makes it difficult to respond to the FDA is that there is a lot of wiggle room left in the regulations as written. High and moderate risk tests will be required to report adverse results and apply for pre-market review according to separate timetables – but the FDA will not define those terms for up to 2 years after the regulations are finalized (Policy and Medicine has a useful chart if you are looking for specifics on timelines). In other words, the FDA has designed a system that gives them room to maneuver – and is asking for respondents to give feedback on the plan without knowing where the agency plans to draw the line. For example, breast cancer susceptibility panels probably aren’t low risk; they are medically actionable and complicated to interpret. Are they high risk or moderate risk? The somewhat hyperbolic letter from the FDA to 23andMe last fall* suggested that the agency believes the fallout from breast cancer risk prediction done badly might be unnecessary mastectomies. That sounds pretty high risk – but is that the perceived reality of counselors who work with these tests?

 

The rare disease exemption in the FDA plan means that whole exome or whole genome sequencing would not be affected, in those cases where the patient presents with an apparently genetic condition that has eluded diagnosis. WES for those with no apparent disease, who wish to use the information prophylactically? I have literally no idea what risk the FDA would assign to clinical versions of genome scanning. What about the genetic testing done for children with autism? These supplement rather than point to a diagnosis and would rarely change treatment but may have a big impact on the parents reproductive choices – is that consequence enough to bump a test from low risk to high risk?

 

I might sound like I am criticizing the FDA, but in fact I am sympathetic to the difficulties inherent in a modulated approach and appreciate that they are attempting to tread that knife’s edge. I do think it makes it difficult to provide feedback, and I would suggest that their policy be reopened for public comment at critical junctures, such as the point at which high, low and moderate risk categories are more carefully defined. Useful commentary now, I would suggest, will need to be far more granular than the FDA regulatory language itself. What tests do you feel work well for you and your patients? Are there tests in use or in the pipeline that concern you? Which ones? Why? Share your concerns here, and I will write up a response incorporating reader response when the draft regulations are posted for public comment.

 

*Note: don’t bother telling the FDA that you are concerned about direct-to-consumer testing, because the agency has already noted that this applies only to testing in a clinical context. No DTC testing will be exempt from review – a footnote to the FDA’s announcement that had DTC advocates screaming foul – for details see Jennifer Wagner’s irritated response at the Genomics Law Report.

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Don’t Look Now

At the bus stop the other day I saw a young man who had no nose. No proboscis, no nasal hypoplasia, no midline facial cleft, no Voldemort nasal slits. Just a deep hole, the circumference of a quarter, in the center of his face. The shock was heightened by encountering him in the clear daylight of a beautiful afternoon, outside of the normalizing context of a genetics clinic.

My mind sorted through possible etiologies. A freebasing accident gone horrifically wrong? A congenital anomaly syndrome whose name was lost in the cobwebs of my brain? A developmental process gone awry? The product of a new teratogen? An extreme case of self-mutilating psychopathology?

My fellow commuters in waiting were either staring directly at him, or, like me, struggling to disguise our rudeness by trying to simultaneously gaze at and just past him. I rationalized my behavior by telling myself that I was doing what any reasonable geneticist would do – trying to fit him into a Dave Smith pigeonhole. But, truth be told, I was gawking at him.

Name That Syndrome. It is a game that geneticists often play when we have the opportunity to observe the parade of humanity in all of its terribly wonderful variety. That exotically gorgeous woman with the ice blue eyes and gray forelock sitting at the bar? I bet she has Waardenburg syndrome. That overly friendly young boy with the starburst iris trying to make friends with every angry airline passenger aggravated by the flight delay? Only a kid with Williams syndrome could have that much faith in the goodness of humanity. That overweight blind child with post axial polydactyly clinging to her bedraggled mother, the weary pair standing on a rush hour bus because nobody had the decency to offer them a seat? I hope her pediatrician had the savvy to diagnose Bardet-Biedl syndrome. And that guy waiting to board the plane who has wide-set eyes, a depressed nasal bridge, a smooth philtrum, and mild syndactyly – he must have something. I wonder if the airport’s facial recognition security software has Gorlin’s Syndromes of the Head and Neck programmed into it?

Context matters. Within the confines of the clinic, it is entirely appropriate for a genetic professional to intensely examine every square centimeter of a patient’s body. But once we step out of the front doors of our medical towers and into the streets, we lose the mantle of medical authority that grants us the social privilege of staring closely at other human beings to look for differences subtle and profound that stray from the norm (of course, variation is the norm).

Separation of personal and professional life is a complex, challenging, and ongoing process. We often have a hard time finding the Off button for our clinical instincts. Like clerics and cops, geneticists can feel like they are never off duty. I struggle with this nearly every day, dancing a tango where I am vying with myself for the lead.

I do my best to justify the social crassness of Name That Syndrome by re-framing it as clinical curiosity.  But it’s not polite to stare; Mom is right once again. On the streets they are not clinical puzzles. They are people with beating hearts who are trying to scratch out a decent life in a hard world. They deserve respect and dignity, not freak stares. If we lose sight of this, we become poorer clinicians and lesser people.

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Guest Post: The Most Powerful Breakthrough in Genetic Science is…Hope

By Jim Small

 

Jim Small is an entrepreneur, speaker, author and successful real estate investor. A sudden family tragedy led him to discover his life’s purpose and career passion. Jim uses his real estate passion to help others create abundance and fulfill his life’s purpose of helping one million children reach their full potential. Jim is currently expanding his global reach on this mission by partnering with other world class speakers, motivators and industry game changers. Jim continues to speak around the world to groups about his personal journey and how others may find their purpose, passion and prosperity, through his Triumphant Legacy™ program (www.TriumphantLegacy.com).

Our family story and experiences with genetic counselors revolves around our oldest daughter, Sophia. Sophia was born totally typical with high APGAR scores and developed quite normally for her first year life. Then, somewhere between 15 to 18 months old, my wife and I noticed that she was regressing in her engagement with others – in her language and in her social skills — and she continued to deteriorate from there. We took Sophia to therapists and doctors, and the only thing that they could say was that she might potentially have the behaviorally diagnosed disorder of autism. So, for a couple of years, my wife and I tried to help Sophia with therapies, diet and alternative medical treatments, presuming that she had autism… and she really wasn’t getting any better.

A friend advised us to get a full-team assessment at a hospital in California. We took Sophia there for a work up which included neurologists, cardiologists, gastroenterologists, infectious disease doctors, immunologists – the full gamut. These specialists evaluated Sophia and then met as a team. One of the outcomes was to do some additional genetic screening for Sophia. She had already been tested for Fragile X, Rett Syndrome, Angelman and some other things that had all come up negative in the past, so my wife and I reluctantly agreed to do some more blood draws for additional genetic tests. When the results came back, we were asked to return to the hospital to discuss the findings with a neurologist and a genetic counselor. Before the meeting, Audra was told over the phone that Sophia had tested positive for Rett Syndrome and we were then sent the test results.

Not really knowing what Rett was, we waited to meet with the neurologist and the genetic counselor to learn about it. Our appointment was horrible. The doctor was clearly very experienced in neurology and she briefly explained a little bit about the genetic mechanism that causes Rett Syndrome – a mutation of the MECP2 gene on the X chromosome. Then the genetic counselor started to guide the conversation as she handed us a book on Rett syndrome. They both proceeded to tell us all the things that Sophia would NOT be able to do, how horrible her prognosis was, how difficult her life would be and how sorry they were that no treatments were known or forthcoming to help with the situation.

Needless to say, my wife and I left there feeling quite shocked, devastated and powerless. Basically, we went home and waited for our daughter to deteriorate as they said she would, doing nothing to improve her health for the next six months.

Then, as we were trying to treat her seizures (one symptom of Rett syndrome), we ended up seeing a neurologist at a hospital in Massachusetts, who suggested that we meet with a geneticist and a genetic counselor affiliated with that hospital and a very prominent medical school. Naturally, my wife and I were reluctant to do so after our experience at the hospital in California, but we really respected this neurologist, as he was extremely insightful, up on the research and very progressive. So we agreed to see this new geneticist in Boston. In meeting with him, we were given hope for the first time – he explained that there had been a reversal of Rett Syndrome symptoms in mice and that he was of the belief that in the coming years, we would be able to find a mechanism to help girls like Sophia reverse Rett syndrome completely. Moreover, he had been working with girls with Rett syndrome for many years, and told us that girls who presented like Sophia actually have a much better prognosis than what was described to us bythe genetic counselor at the California hospital.

Then his genetic counselor colleague came in to join the conversation. She explained once again the cause of Rett syndrome, and then began to elaborate on how they were looking into trials for particular drugs and treatments that may reduce the severity. Both the doctor and the genetic counselor stressed the many girls they had seen, like our daughter, who ended up having all kinds of abilities that weren’t in the text books and weren’t part of the old school prognosis (which they believed was outdated) and suggested that the future for our daughter was actually quite positive. Although my wife and I respect the first doctor’s and genetic counselor’s prognosis as historically accurate, we were struck with the 180 degree difference between that negative and de-motivating scenario and the hopeful perspective of the second geneticist.

Working with the team in Massachusetts, wife and I have felt very empowered and optimistic about our daughter’s future. Although the research available to both groups of genetic counselors was the same, the presentation of the facts, the future, and the prognosis were dramatically different. We hope that all families experiencing an issue that requires the help of a genetic counselor will have an experience as favorable as our second encounter, where we got hope along with the facts and an understanding of the reality. I think that optimism can make genetic counselors more effective, more empowering and more giving.

With medicine, nobody knows the future. Although experience and literature allows us to be familiar with the past, no one ever knows what scientific and medical breakthroughs will happen over the course of a human lifetime. So, as genetic counselors provide information, help and resources to families, I think it’s critical that they remain optimistic about the potential changes we are going to see in the future and how those will, almost inevitably, make the prognosis for today’s patients affected by genetic disease much, much better.Sophia_and_Daddy

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Guest Post: Genetic Counseling Is Like A Soap Opera, by Laila Rhee Morris

Laila Rhee Morris is a genetic counselor in California. She graduated from the Sarah Lawrence College training program in 1992. She loves children, animals, trivia and recycling. Her interests include movies, TV and books that feature genetics.

You could say that I became interested in genetics, healthcare, and soap operas simultaneously. When I was in the 7th grade, I contracted mononucleosis, “the kissing disease,” although, at that point, I was not kissing anyone except the family pets. The fact that a virus was making my white blood cells multiply wildly seems to have sparked my first curiosity about genetics. Mononucleosis completely exhausted me, and my mother mercifully relaxed her 10 hours per week TV rule, which is how I became addicted to soap operas.

After 22 years I find that my genetic counseling sessions can resemble a soap opera. The messy human drama  – and sometimes comedy) – plays out in the sessions, hospital rooms, and can even spill over into waiting rooms. But all this is not for my amusement; my job is to help people pick up the pieces of their lives.

I love to tell people that I once wrote a genetic counseling story-line for a soap opera. About 20 years ago, the producers of the soap opera Loving (ABC TV: 1983-1995) called the clinic in New York where I was working to request the help of a genetic counselor to devise a plot-line whereby their star actress, Susan Keith, could have a pregnancy with an unclear ultrasound finding. I excitedly volunteered right away, correctly guessing that my supervisor, Nancy Zellers, would be too busy to take on this task.

I felt vindicated that all those hours that I spent watching were not a waste and I felt as if, finally, these TV people had come to me to develop a decent dramatic story with a foothold in the real world of genetics. The guidelines were that the character had to have prenatal ultrasound finding where the baby could be normal or could have problems after birth. Susan Keith* played Shana Sloane Vocheck Burnell; she was a pretty actress with mountains of red hair. Somewhere in my devious mind or maybe from an actual case, I decided that Shana should have a prenatal ultrasound that detected agenesis of the corpus callosum (ACC) in the fetus.

Shana went for her ultrasound probably expecting everything to be normal, as most real patients do, and thinking that the only point to this ultrasound exam would be to determine whether she was having a girl or a boy. After the ACC diagnosis, the writers had Shana meet with a genetic counselor. Gasp. Can you think of a single TV show or movie where there has been a genetic counselor character?

The genetic counselor character was featured for one day. The producers made it a point to tell me that they even went to the expense to fly out a veteran (show business speak for “older”) actress from Los Angeles to play the role of the genetic counselor (GC). Oh my, the scene with the genetic counselor was just awful. I did not think to record it and thus nothing is left of my masterpiece.

On the positive side, the actress did look like a GC or at least those that I had encountered up to that point during my training. She was an older, kindly appearing Caucasian woman. My cringe worthy moments started the minute that she opened her mouth and introduced herself as “a genetics counselor,” with the “S.”** Then, she ushered Shana and her partner to her office and sat behind a mahogany desk to deliver the bad news. As Shana sobbed and dropped the entire contents of her purse on the ground, the GC excused herself to go take care of something more important in another room. The GC didn’t even offer poor Shana a tissue as Shana was crouching on the carpet in a puddle of tears. On Loving, Shana’s ACC story line went on and on, drawn out for more weeks than a real pregnancy lasts, until Shana eventually delivered an apparently healthy baby girl.

I also want to point out that the soap operas can be educational. They were some great genetic storylines. The 1980 General Hospital paternity storyline involving the Bombay blood phenotype is featured on an NIH website and on YouTube.

After moving away from New York city 20 years ago, I have no time to watch TV and most of the soap operas have been cancelled. Sadly, my soap opera days seem to be behind me but isn’t being let into our patients’ complicated lives (and helping them) the ultimate human drama?

 

*A different Loving clip featuring Susan Keith can be found on youtube.com at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Iy45gvOXlY Interestingly, this clip features Susan Keith smooching with her real life husband, James Kiberd

** There are some people (Bob Resta is one) who like the “S” in genetics counselor because it sounds as if we are counseling about the field of genetics. I know that it is not an apostrophe “S” but my opinion is that genetics with the S is a tongue twister and makes me sound like a Castilian Spanish aristocrat. I am certain that the original Loving script reflected my preference: the without the “S” variation.

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It’s All About Me

Now that FDA and FTC are cracking down on online genetic testing there are fewer major players in the revolutionary new field of Perfectly Useless Genetic Screening (PUGS). So I thought that I could fill this void by re-branding GeeKnowType, my previous foray into artisanal personalized genetic testing. And voila! The RestaEZ  Gene Panels™ were conceived.

The basic principle behind the RestaEZ Gene Panels™ is that if somebody, somewhere says something is genetic – especially if the source is the Internet –  then enough consumers, er, patients, will believe it and I will offer a genetic test for it.

Here is a  sample of some of the valuable medical information you will obtain from my RestaEZ Gene Panels™:

Restassured – The prenatal test that uses circulating free placental DNA that will assure you that your unborn baby is not gay, obese, gluten-sensitive, or unable to get into the finest college or preschool. Of course, I have nothing against overweight gay men who can’t even go out for pizza with his friends and who barely graduated high school, but, well, you know, parents should have a choice about these things.

UnderAResta – Worried that your adorable baby may be the next Baby Face Nelson? Then insist that your child’s pediatrician screen your baby for XYY, CTNNA2, and MAOA. A portion of the fee is donated to the Restatution Fund, which will pay any legal fees and bail on the outside chance that a random socioeconomic factor might influence your genetically normal child to break the law and affect the subsequent verdict and sentencing.

Restaurateur - Interested in a career as a chef but not sure if you have the palate for it? This panel  – which includes  TAS2R38, TAS1R2TAS1R3, PKD2L1, and PKD1L3  genes – will let you know if you are a supertaster or if you may as well be eating cardboard or truffles for all you can tell. Order this panel and I will throw in polycystic kidney disease testing at no extra cost.

RestaLess Legs Do you think you may have wanderlust but can’t stay in one place long enough to find out? Are you losing sleep because you think that your partner may up and leave you out of the blue and leave you singing the blues? Then DRD4 analysis is what you need. Important – please leave a forwarding address so the results can be sent to you.

RestaLess Eggs - Are you paranoid that your hot new girlfriend will all of a sudden “find herself pregnant,” trap you into  marriage, and ruin your otherwise excellent relationship and sex life? Then have her take the test for The Mom Gene when she asks if you think you two should move in together. No more fretting about lifetime sentences, umm, I mean, commitments.

PRestaDigitation – Whatever happened to The Vapors, Neursasthenia, Hysteria, and all those other diseases that were rampant in the 19th and early 20th century? Well, let me assure you that they are still with us but because doctors could never cure them they instead sold us the line that these were imaginary disorders and magically made them disappear by snapping their fingers and declaring them obsolete. I can  just as easily wave my hands and make these maladies suddenly re-appear in near epidemic numbers; all I have to do is utilize social media to recruit people who think they are afflicted with these serious disorders. Although no genetic markers are yet available for these conditions, I am sure that if I run enough genome wide association studies I will find some linked anonymous markers. This will allow sufferers to receive personalized medical care, such as the water cure, magnotherapy, electrotherapy, uterine massage, and yogurt based enemas provided by spas, asylums, sanatoria, and other major medical centers.

I strongly recommend that anyone seriously interested in their genetic make-up include in their order the RestaTheResults Option. At little extra cost – only 50 cents per nucleotide – you will have access to every single genetic variant in your personal genome, including benign polymorphisms, synonymous variants, and every variant in your non-coding DNA. Because it’s your DNA, damn it, and you have the constitutional and God-given right to know your entire genetic blueprint and the government has no business withholding it from you.

I declare no conflict of interest when it comes to RestaEZ Gene Panels™. Sure, I make money off of the tests but that is beside the point. I am a good person, well-intentioned, guided by sound ethical principles, and I am only trying to make people’s lives better.

 

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NIPS SPIN

Advertising is the art of making whole lies out of half truths. ~Edgar A. Shoaff

Every few years a new screening technology comes zooming down the prenatal pike, sometimes arriving more quickly than we might like. First there was maternal age, with the magical age of 35 as the cut-off. Low maternal serum AFP arrived in the 1980s and the OB community embraced it virtually overnight when ACOG’s Committee on Professional Liability issued a statement that practitioners could be held legally liable if they had not offered this screen to a patient who had given birth to a child with Down syndrome. This was followed in short order by the Triple Screen, The Quad Screen, nuchal thickening, Integrated Screening, etc., each one a statistical notch above its predecessor. The latest iteration – cell-free fetal DNA or Non-Invasive Prenatal Screening (NIPS)  – stands head and shoulders above the rest. Two of our colleagues have already discussed the limitations and strengths of NIPS here on The DNA Exchange.*

NIPS is big, as in global big. One lab makes its brochure available in more 20 languages, from Afrikaans to Xhosa (the pregnancy gods must be crazy, dropping pamphlets out of The Cloud). Tens of millions of women around the world are likely to undergo NIPS in the near future. And pregnant women are a “renewable resource” –  a whole new batch pops up every day and many women will have two, three, or more children. Competition for market share among labs is stiff and there is little incentive to dissuade women from undergoing prenatal screening. It’s not that labs coerce women to undergo screening, advocate eugenic agendas, or run roughshod over personal autonomy. All labs would support a woman’s right to decline prenatal screening and Lord knows they stay away from the abortion discussion. But if enough women decline, then there is no incentive to offer the screen. The companies have something to sell and will spin their product to attract customers.

Which brings me to the subtly misleading implications of the name Non-Invasive Prenatal Screening. Sure, NIPS is non-invasive. But so is ultrasound, AFP, HCG, etc. All of these screening tests are non-invasive and therefore do not carry a direct risk of fetal loss. NIPS  is no different from the rest in that sense. It is superior to other screens in terms of having a very low first positive rates, high positive predictive value, and high sensitivity. But NIPS is still an alternative to other screening tests, not to amniocentesis or CVS.

Yet the websites of companies that offer NIPS communicate a different message that subtly suggests that NIPS is in fact an alternative to amniocentesis/CVS instead of an alternative to, say, the Integrated Screen:

First we thought the PC was a calculator. Then we found out how to turn numbers into letters with ASCII – and we thought it was a typewriter. Then we discovered graphics, and we thought it was a television. With the World Wide Web, we’ve realized it’s a brochure. ~Douglas Adams

The suggestion that NIPS is a diagnostic test is further reinforced by reassuring text in large, appealing fonts – Comprehensive, Accurate, Trustworthy, and, my personal favorite, No Confusion. Such wording conflates screening tests with diagnostic tests. Who could resist a test that boasts to be >99% accurate, especially when combined with images of smiling, beautiful parents and babies so cute that you wish your touch screen would allow you to hug them? It is easy to see why parents might be confused and some genetic counselors feel that 75% of their patients may think that NIPS is diagnostic. Yes, the labs also offer comparison to other screens, information about the conditions being screened for, links to disability focused websites, and acknowledge the role of diagnostic testing. But information does not sell products; images and impressions do.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Treachery_of_Images

The Treachery of Images by René Magritte

NIPS is a pretty good screening tool that can help patients decide if they want to proceed to diagnostic testing such as amniocentesis or CVS. However, the first step in the process of considering any testing should be a soul-searching and difficult discussion between parents and with their care providers about views on disability, parenthood, expectations for their children, and beliefs about pregnancy termination (I can’t prove it, but I am pretty sure that discussion is not taking place anywhere near as frequently as it should). For parents who feel it is important to know the chromosomal status of their baby, the next step is to outline the pros and cons of screening tests, emphasizing that a screen only provides a probability that a child may have a particular chromosomal disorder. The risk estimate provided by the screening test may help parents decide if they wish to undergo diagnostic testing.

One might counter that labs are commercial entities engaging in good old American advertising, which everybody knows is not exactly a strictly honest business. But prenatal screening is not like trying to sell Coke vs. Pepsi or Ford vs. Toyota or Chia Pet vs., well, whatever it is that Chia Pets are in competition with. We are talking about babies, our deepest hopes and dreams, and the core values that define our humanity. This demands a higher standard and this is where genetic counselors need to work with their laboratory employers to elevate the discussion.

 


* Missing from much of the professional  discussion about NIPS has been the viewpoint of people with disabilities, their families, and their advocates. As Rachel Adams points out, the Down syndrome community in particular might feel particularly targeted by a test named Maternit21 – but that thorny topic is for another day.

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Hobby Lobby Sounds Like Fun But It’s Really Yucky Sucky for Genetic Counseling

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Hobby Lobby sure sounds like something that would never harm you. As Ray the Ghostbuster said in Ghostbusters, “Something I loved from childhood…something that could never ever possibly destroy us…”   But sadly, it is true: a threat wrapped in adorableness, Hobby Lobby v Sibelius is the 100’ tall Stay Puff Marshmallow Man of legal cases.

 

On March 25th, the Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments for and against the claim that Hobby Lobby, a privately-held company run by a family with conservative Christian beliefs, should not be compelled to purchase insurance for its employees that includes coverage for contraceptives, as is mandated under Obamacare. Actually the company does not object to all contraceptives, only to those that they consider abortifacients, including IUD’s and the morning after pill. Because this case concerns their right to act in accordance with religious ideology, the question of whether or not these methods actually produce an abortion is moot – it only matters that the owners of Hobby Lobby believe them to be wrong. So while the particulars of their faith mean that some contraceptives would still be available to Hobby Lobby employees, the principle under review, untethered to any burden of proof or objective standard, is far more sweeping.

 

Although the contraceptives issue itself is important, people on both sides have emphasized that this decision will have broader consequences. For instance, advocates for gay rights have seen this as a foot in the door for state-sanctioned discrimination, giving companies the right to refuse service or employment based on prejudice dressed up as religious beliefs. Adam Winkler, UCLA law professor writing in the Huffington Post, describes a number of ways that anti-discrimination laws could be undermined if any employer could claim a “religion-based objection to the law.”

 

This case is something that genetic counselors and the NSGC should be watching with concern, as it is likely to impact our field as well. Employers who object to paying for coverage that includes contraceptives may take a similarly skeptical view of paying for insurance that covers prenatal testing, with the reasoning that prenatal testing is done only to provide the opportunity for abortion. You can (and we will) argue that prenatal testing can lead to therapy or better case management or simple reassurance, but others will assert that the point of prenatal testing is to open the door for termination and, right or wrong, this is an argument that is likely to be taken seriously by conservative justices. If that seems crazy to you, do this thought experiment: imagine that termination is not an option under any circumstances, and then picture trying to get insurance companies to pay for amniocentesis.

 

Why do I think that anti-abortion advocates will target prenatal testing? it’s simple: they’ve been talking about it for years. Remember Rick Santorum, who was for a time one of the frontrunners to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2012? He made a speech during the campaign where he talked about the fact that prenatal testing is included as a fundamental and required part of healthcare coverage under Obamacare rules. “One of the mandates is they require free prenatal testing in every insurance policy in America. Why? Because it saves money in health care. Why? Because free prenatal testing ends up in more abortions and therefore less care that has to be done, because we cull the ranks of the disabled in our society.” This speech shocked a lot of people in the field when it hit the presses, but it didn’t shock his Christian Alliance audience at all. This doesn’t come from nowhere. Prenatal diagnosis is on the radar of the anti-abortion movement in the United States, which is why Hobby Lobby should be on ours.

 

Want more proof? How about the law passed in North Dakota last year, which prohibits abortion for sex selection or genetic defect? This statute has gone unchallenged in large part because it is almost impossible to enforce, as opposed to — say — the law restricting all abortions past six weeks gestation, which was passed at the same time and (understandably) got the lion’s share of the press. But the genetic abortion law, first of its kind, is a clear manifesto expressing the intention of those who oppose abortion to limit the ability of women to terminate for cause. And t that end, eliminating coverage for prenatal testing is a far more effective tool than trying to pass laws that require prosecutors to prove something about a woman’s state of mind.

 

This is an issue that isn’t going away. In fact, I predict it’s going to get worse. Why? Because we are getting better at what we do. Keep in mind that all our steps forward (better sensitivity, better specificity, earlier results, less invasive testing) are threatening to a mindset that sees prenatal diagnosis as an ever more efficient way to identify and eliminate vulnerable individuals. When ACOG revised its practice guidelines in 2007 to increase the number of women eligible for prenatal testing, columnist George Will wrote, “what is antiseptically called “screening” for Down syndrome is, much more often than not, a search-and-destroy mission…” Will, the father of a son with Down syndrome, bemoaned the change in practice precisely because it would be more effective.

 

I know, not because I am psychic, but because I have had this conversation before, what genetic counselors will say when this line of attack is launched. First, they will talk about their own commitment to be supportive of all choices for their patients, including the choice not to terminate, which is incredibly important to your patients but doesn’t matter at all to anti-abortion activists.  They don’t care if you are a good counselor, or a good person, since it doesn’t change the fact that a large percentage (how large; under dispute) of all those who receive a diagnosis of Down syndrome, for example, will choose to abort. Second, they will argue that prenatal testing has a value beyond the opportunity to terminate, which is true but a bit disingenuous for the same reason as above. Prenatal testing puts termination on the table as an option.

 

What I don’t like about this defensive posture is that it implies that giving families the option to terminate is not a good enough reason to do testing, or that we are unwilling to champion it as such. I don’t think this is how most counselors feel, but it is natural to try and tiptoe around the sensitivities of others, especially when those sensitivities are emotionally charged and involve a lot of judging – judging of us, and of our patients, whose feelings as well as medical options we would like to protect. But ultimately I think it is a better and stronger position to argue on behalf of what we do without defensiveness. We shouldn’t base our case for prenatal testing on the need to provide reassurance or how it improves prenatal care because those are not our best arguments and it makes us sound ashamed.

 

And meanwhile, stayed tuned on Hobby Lobby, where a decision is expected in early June.

 

 

 

 

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