As Bob Resta’s post here on the DNA Exchange ably illustrates, genetic counselors have lots of reasons to take an interest in the Counsyl Universal Genetic Test. Is it being oversold? Probably – here are a couple of reasons why Universal is not universal:
- The company cites a high accuracy rate for detection of mutations – but of course they only mean the detection of mutations on the panel, which means it gets many but not all – this distinction would likely be lost on the average consumer. And in the same vein, accuracy does not measure how many of these very rare mutations may be non-penetrant or benign. It is hard to tell how often we will be suggesting unnecessary intervention, including extreme measures like PGD.
- People might understandably assume that “universal” means ALL diseases, rather than a subset of rare diseases with a recessive etiology. The specifics are there in the fine print but I’m just saying…
I imagine many counselors are leery of the Counsyl test because they suspect the people for whom expectations exceed performance will land in their laps, angry and frustrated. This must be something akin to how the sanitation department feels about tickertape parades.
Then again, the Counsyl test has a lot to like:
- Great value. The test offers information on 100 diseases for the same cost as we often see for information on one or two diseases.
- Accessibility. A DTC test enables people who live far from any purveyors of genetic services. Sometimes the question is not is this the best way? but is this better than nothing?
- Focus on rare diseases. These are the orphan diseases – the ones that can’t get any attention unless Susan Sarandon or Harrison Ford make a movie. This test may expand our ability to reduce the number of families who have tragic outcomes. The Times cites critics as saying this is a step toward designer babies but if this is some exercise in vanity than so is EVERYTHING WE DO. Seriously.
Saving babies, cost, accuracy, uncertainty – these are issues we have seen before, balances to be struck. In fact, we make these decisions all the time. What is really new about the Counsyl test is not the questions we must answer but the fact that no one is asking – it is not up to us! Although genetic counselors have always prided themselves on allowing patients to make decisions, they have always been in control of the flow of information – of how much information was necessary to make a responsible decision. Of what information was extraneous, and what information potentially dangerous.
Naturally our response to innovations like the Counsyl test is to debate whether or not the information in it is more likely to help or to harm our patients – just what I was doing when I made my list above. It’s not a bad thing do, and I welcome comments on my Reader’s Digest version of the pros and cons, because counselors out there have a lot to add on that debate.
But we can’t universally confine our response to trying to weigh in on whether or not it is a good idea to allow the information to get out there unimpeded. Why? For one thing, it is a waste of time. Trying to impede the flow of information in the 21st Century is a pastime for Luddites. Harping on it will make us about as relevant as Amish fashion critics. Sure – everyone does look good in black, but people are going to be wearing fuschia and even mauve. It’s a fact of life. I like clothes with zippers. There are those moments when button-fly jeans are just too slow. You know what I’m talking about.
Plus, reflexively, we should be for and not against the free flow of information. This is America – land of the free, not land of the carefully vetted. The nature of information is that it is confusing as well as enabling, and an excess of it does not diminish the importance of expertise – it creates an opportunity for expertise. Let people get information and they will come looking for clarity. Liz Kearney, the new president of the NSGC, has written persuasively about the need to establish an NSGC “brand.” She’s right. We need a brand, and we need our brand to stand for credibility, clarity and unbiased scientific accuracy – something that will stand apart from all the information, accurate and otherwise, that comes from people who have something to sell, like the Counsyl Universal Genetic Test.