Category Archives: Allie Janson Hazell

FDA Letter to 23andMe: A Genetic Counselor’s Breakdown

FDA letter Nov 22

On Friday, November 22 Food and Drug Administration issued a warning letter to direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe. Many in the genetics community are experiencing a little déjà-vu this week, with the ensuing discussions in mainstream media and within online communities reminiscent of 2010 when FDA issued warning letters to 5 direct-to-consumer companies that were operating at that time. (Check out this post from Genomics Law Report for a good overview of the issue at that point in time.)

Regulation of direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies is complex and often confounded by thoughts and opinions regarding DTC advertising, DTC genetic testing, the validity and clinical utility of SNP-based panels, consumer rights and privacy, to name a few. I have personally fallen into a rabbit hole of articles, blog posts and twitter discussions in the past few days (see “Recommended Reading” section below). All of these outlets are debating the same issue, but this particular issue has an infinite number of very subtle angles.

The term “direct-to-consumer” conjures up strong emotions for genetic counselors. No doubt you will see some of this played out on The DNA Exchange in the next few days. However, in discussing the most recent FDA letter with a number of people (both colleagues and non-GCs) I’ve realized some basic review and clarification might be helpful. Hopefully this will serve as a nice starting point to frame our discussions on this issue in the days to come.

The full letter can be found on the FDA website here.

The 23andMe response has been posted here.

There are two basic aspects to the FDA  letter:

1. Marketing 

In the FDA’s words “…Your company’s website markets [your test] for providing “health reports on 254 diseases and conditions,” including categories such as “carrier status,” “health risks,” and “drug response,” and specifically as a “first step in prevention” that enables users to “take steps toward mitigating serious diseases” such as diabetes, coronary heart disease, and breast cancer….To date, 23andMe has failed to provide adequate information to support a determination that [your test] is substantially equivalent to a legally marketed predicate for any of the uses for which you are marketing it…”

My takeaway:  23andMe’s marketing materials claim their test can prevent serious diseases. The company does not have FDA clearance nor has it provided the appropriate evidence to make this blanket claim. This speaks most strongly to the clinical validity and utility of SNP-based testing—an issue that hits close to home for a lot of us. I think it is important that the FDA is highlighting the lack of evidence around prevention and predisposition testing for common disease.  However, we need to recognize that 23andMe is also testing for additional variants beyond SNPs.

Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that genetic counselors continue to use the terms “direct-to-consumer genetic testing” and “SNP-based testing” interchangeably, which is both incorrect and adds to overall confusion. Genetic testing for common complex disease (primarily based on SNP information) is still controversial in our profession. However, as noted in the letter, 23andMe is a direct-to-consumer company that is also providing carrier testing for Mendelian diseases as well as the 3 common Ashkenazi Jewish BRCA mutations. To dismiss the 23andMe service by saying “this test doesn’t tell you anything!” undermines some of the routine testing that we do within a clinical setting. One cannot argue that 23andMe’s service “doesn’t tell you anything” and “has the potential for serious harm” in the same breath.

2. Direct-to-consumer health information

In the FDA’s words: “Some of the uses for which [personal genome service] is intended are particularly concerning… For instance, if the BRCA-related risk assessment for breast or ovarian cancer reports a false positive, it could lead a patient to undergo prophylactic surgery, chemoprevention, intensive screening, or other morbidity-inducing actions, while a false negative could result in a failure to recognize an actual risk that may exist.”

 My takeaway: 23andMe is providing health information and test results directly to consumers without the involvement of a physician. This could lead to medical mismanagement, “serious injury or death.” I believe the DTC aspect of the testing (in comparison with the SNP-based aspect) is still the biggest challenge to the 23andMe model. Genetic testing for disease causing mutations without appropriate clinical context, family history review and individualized interpretation is where real potential for harm lies.

Suggested Reading (Or, some of the more interesting articles I have come across so far)

Also, if you’re interested in learning more about FDA regulation of medical devices, I found this video on their website.

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Work, Life & Flexibility in Genetic Counseling

Work/life balance is one of the perks of our profession. Right?

I remember learning that great work/life balance was a benefit of the profession when considering genetic counseling as a career. I now routinely share this ‘fact’ with students who are interested in learning more about becoming a genetic counselor. In comparison with most of my friends– who work in advertising, pr, law and finance– my work/life balance is incredible. I can put in a full day of work, head to the gym and be home by 7pm to enjoy a leisurely evening. My hours are very predictable – and when I leave work I’m not on my phone all night like so many others I know.  So, last summer when the popular article Why woman still can’t have it all was circulating among my female friends, I read it with some distance

The author Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor and former director of policy planning at the State Department, challenges the popular assumptions that if a woman 1) has enough ambition, 2) marries a supportive-enough partner and 3) plans her pregnancies accordingly, she can have a successful career in a position of power and nurture a happy and healthy family life all at once.

In her words,

Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation…I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.

The author goes on to argue that having flexibility in the workplace (namely the ability to determine your own schedule and work from home when needed) is one of the single most important factors in helping to balance a successful career and busy home life.

I am currently on maternity leave, and thinking back to this article I realize that the author’s focus on flexibility really stuck with me. While there are many things I enjoy about working in a busy clinical setting, flexibility is not one of them.

F&A June 2013

If I’m not able to make it in for my 9am patient, then it falls on the shoulders of a colleague, pushing back her own 9:30am appointment, which in turn will affect a whole day full of patients. Like many counselors I know, I very rarely miss a day of work unscheduled. But as I look towards the future imagining an ill child or a caregiver who calls in sick—I realize I may no longer have as much control as I used to. I am reminded daily by my giggling and communicative 5-month old daughter that it is no longer just me I have to worry about. I’m learning that my definition of ‘work/life balance’ may be about to change.

Out of curiosity, I went to Professional Status Survey to get a sense of how we as a profession rate our work/life balance.  Looking at the most recent versions of the National Society of Genetic Counselors and the Canadian Association of Genetic Counsellors surveys, it appears that the question has not been formally asked.

Beyond the clinic

Increasingly, genetic counsellors are working in a wider category of roles and environments. In fact, we have used this blog to highlight diverse GC roles in the past. My childless self had previously seen this primarily as a sign of the genetics field expanding. But it now occurs to me, this may also be in part a result of GCs looking to find a professional opportunity that better suits their lifestyle. I recently came across a nice interview on the Counsyl blog about a genetic counselors’ decision to trade-in clinical life to work from home that would support this view.

The trend towards a non-traditional work environment is happening in almost every sector. Many argue that our society is at a turning point, where lengthening commutes and new technological capabilities are prompting employees and employers to re-consider the traditional workday. For instance, Medcan Clinic – my current employer – has recently increased our services to include Saturday clinics. As our society – including our patient population – increasingly values flexibility, our profession will have to continue to adapt. Responding to changing patient and employee schedules will likely become an even bigger focus in the coming years; and as a result we can expect to see the creation of even more non-traditional services, roles and communication formats.

How might the GC profession maintain its positive work/life reputation in a world that increasingly values flexibility?

The medical world tends to lag other professional service industries when it comes to making change. I recognize that the structure of the traditional genetics clinic will not likely undergo any wholesale changes overnight. Nevertheless, I think this is an important conversation for us to start having now. In fact, I’ll be participating in a panel on technology and innovative communication in genetic counseling at this year’s NSGC conference in Anaheim (excuse the shameless plug).

I would love to hear from other GCs who have thoughts and experiences around this topic. Where do you think the GC role currently stacks up for work/life balance? Have you found ways to integrate more flexibility into your role? Where do you see opportunities & challenges for GCs to better manage work/life as our profession evolves?

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As a Genetic Counselor, Would You Go Public With Your Genome?

A Canadian version of the Personal Genome Project (PGP) was launched earlier this month. This is an initiative that, for one key reason, is likely to have a rippling effect for the genetic counseling profession. Modelled after and in collaboration with George Church and his group at Harvard, the project aims to recruit 100,000 volunteers to have their whole genome sequenced and posted publicly online for the advancement of research. As someone who has followed the US Personal Genome Project from the outset, I’m thrilled that Canadians will now be able to participate in this important research.

So why is the Canadian version of this project so important for genetic counselors specifically? Because the first participant (whom the media has aptly named Canuck One) to bravely volunteer to “bare her genomic soul” and forgo any form of anonymity while doing it, is a genetic counselor. Jill  Davies and her involvement with PGP-Canada was profiled in The Globe & Mail (one of Canada’s largest national newspapers) earlier this month.

Globe and Mail PGP-1

In full disclosure, Jill Davies is a close colleague and friend (and also a previous guest contributor to The DNA Exchange). The Medcan Clinic genetics program has been involved in the PGP-Canada project from the outset, and therefore it is no coincidence that Jill happens to be participant number 1. But it is also precisely the fact that she is a genetic counselor that the PGP team was keen to have Jill step up to the plate. Who knows the potential implications—clinical, ethical, legal and social—of whole genome sequencing better than a GC? Beyond immersing herself into her work (quite literally), Jill’s participation will undoubtedly help raise awareness of the genetic counseling profession, which is something that I think should be celebrated.

Not surprisingly, with the potential to have my own whole genome sequenced hitting closer to home, I’ve been thinking a lot about whether this is something I would go through with, and if not—why?

The Globe & Mail has done an excellent job in asking the general public this very same question. In conjunction with the official start of the PGP-Canada project, the newspaper launched a widespread interactive media series — The DNA Dilemma—running from December 8 to December 22. This is one of the biggest and most comprehensive genomics-related media series I’ve seen. It is really worth the look at the articles and commentary. They have even developed a genomics game: Win, Lose or Genome?

By far the most interesting component to the series for me is the Infographic-type Poll on whether people would choose to have their genomes sequenced. Of the 1000+ respondents so far, a whopping 80% say they would have sequencing, and 70% believe the benefits outweigh the risks (you can filter the results based on age, gender, location etc). As a genetic counselor I find these numbers fascinating (and surprisingly high).

Globe and Mail Poll

My hunch is that if we polled GCs specifically, this number would be lower. There are so many interesting questions about why this might be—is it because we are more informed? Is it because we are a self-selected group who are more attuned (and potentially concerned about) the ethical issues associated with genetics to begin with? If I had the skills to create such a beautifully intricate poll as the one above I would, but I’ll have to make do with the standard DNA Exchange poll to test my theory. So—what do you say? Would you participate in the PGP?

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What Genetic Counselors are Talking About

Last week, I attended the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) Annual Education Conference in Boston. Although I attended talks on a variety of subjects, where possible I chose sessions focused on new genomics technologies and associated issues. There were some common threads tying these discussions together beyond ‘genomics’ itself. Here’s a quick summary of some of the things I observed and learned.

1. Secondary, Ancillary, Incidental – Oh my!

It is no surprise that discussions around the use of Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) and Whole Exome Sequencing (WES) universally include the question of what to do with the “extra” data—those pieces of information we weren’t looking for, but happened to find. What was surprising are the differences in the terminology we use to describe these extra pieces of data. Jessica Everett, a GC from the University of Michigan Mi-OncoSeq project explained that confusion over this terminology lead her team to decide that they would universally refer to an incidental finding as an unintended piece of information that “falls into your lap” and a secondary finding is extra information you end up finding out, but have to look for.

There are likely some official definitions and designations that already exist here. But it is apparent that we as a GC community currently don’t have a consensus on the nomenclature around this issue.

2. GCs don’t need new skills, but rather need to apply our skills in new ways.

This type of thinking is music to my ears—I love the challenge of applying our skills in new and unique ways. The GC role in pharmacogenomic testing specifically was a sub-theme here. I heard multiple genetic counselors who work in the realm of pharmacogenomic testing say that while they initially believed their role with patients undergoing testing for pharmacogenomic purposes would be minimal, the applicability of our traditional skills and opportunity to provide value to both patients and physicians was far greater than they anticipated. 

3. “Scalability” of the Genomic counseling session

The sheer volume of information and amount of time required to consent patients for WES/WGS technologies was routinely cited as a barrier to genetic counseling in the genomic era. In some cases, GCs plan for a 2+ hour pre-test counseling session, and in most cases there are multiple visits or contacts before testing is initiated. There was also alot of discussion about how best to inform patients about the various types of information that can be learned through genome sequencing technologies. Bioethicist Scott Kim (also from the Mi-OncoSeq project) made a good case for a ‘flexible default’ model for informed consent in these situations.

Consistently GCs commented that when asked ‘do you want to know everything?’ patients and research participants will almost always reply ‘yes– of course I want to know everything!’ However, the use of specific scenarios or examples seems to be required in order to elicit a more meaningful discussion about potential results, and what information patients will decide to opt out of receiving. (This is a topic I’ve previously written about.)

4. Collaboration

Although this may be the least exciting or surprising underlying theme, it is likely the most important. Almost every lecture concluded with a slide highlighting the importance of a collaborative and multidisciplinary approach to genomic testing.

As always, I’d love to hear about others’ reactions and impressions from this year’s AEC. Please feel free to share, below.

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Tweeting: A New Dimension to the AEC

I wanted to put together a quick post mid-AEC to highlight a new (and for many, invisible) dimension to this year’s conference.

For those of you attending the NSGC Annual Education Conference in Boston this week, you’re likely keeping busy hopping between talks, committee meetings, networking functions and catching up with old friends and colleagues. You’re listening to experts in our field discuss new and relevant topics in our profession, and exchanging your thoughts on the lectures with the person you are sitting with.

If you aren’t able to attend the AEC this year, you may have perused the preliminary program and made note of the topics, but that may be the extent of your connection to the AEC content.

But, what if those of you not attending could check-in on the ongoing conversations happening at the AEC? What if you could listen in on the highlights from the talks, and hear attendees reactions to the material? You can! Twitter allows instant access to the conference dialogue. For the first time, the conference organizers have designated a Twitter hashtag (#AEC2012) to  help ‘organize’ or ‘amalgamate’ the online conference conversation. Whether you have a twitter account or not– just click on one of the following links in order to access real-time AEC reactions and discussions:

This has benefit not only for non-attendees. As an attendee, Twitter has enhanced the conference experience for me immensely. I love being able to “listen” to others reaction to the same material I am processing. It is like being able to read someone’s conference notes over their shoulder. I’m always surprised by the difference in what others take away from the same information that I am listening to. And I like being able to silently interact with other conference goers (usually strangers) in order to gain access to another perspective.

Laura Hercher (@laurahercher) and I (@alliejanson and @GenoScapeGC) are both at the conference and actively tweeting throughout the day. We are also occasionally tweeting from the @theDNAExchange account. There are a numer of other notable GC tweeters here as well: @ASanSmith, @GeneticCouns and @dcheatherc.

Whether you’re attending the conference or tuning in from afar, I encourage you to join in!

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New York Times Weighs in on GC Conflict of Interest

On Saturday the New York Times ran a piece titled Conflict Potential Seen in Genetic Counselors, about whether it is ethical for genetic counselors who are paid by corporate labs to be counseling patients about genetic testing. As any reader of The DNA Exchange will know, the topic of conflict of interest in genetic counseling has been an important one of late for Robert Resta, one of our contributors, who has written here extensively on the subject. The Times article used a quote from a commenter on one of Bob’s earlier posts on the topic (see ‘Are We There Yet’).

Conflict of interest is a contentious and emotional issue among genetic counselors (in fact we’ve received some strong criticism regarding Bob’s posts). Because of its controversial nature, I think it’s a subject we tend to shy away from. But the NYT article exposes a serious gap – there is public discussion happening about our field, that we as an industry appear to be somewhat reluctant to discuss ourselves. The DNA Exchange exists to promote open dialogue on exactly this sort of topic. With coverage by a media outlet at the level of the New York Times, it is clear that this is an issue of growing public concern that we all should be talking about, if not researching more formally.

I’m curious about GC reactions to this article. Did you find the author’s point fair? Is ‘Conflict of Interest’ in genetic counseling something that concerns you? Is it something that you have to think about in your day-to-day work? If so, what should we be doing about it? Please share your comments, or cast your votes (anonymously) below.

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Wanted: Campaign to End Genetic Determinism

Today is National DNA Day, a day designated to promote genetics and genomics education. I’ve always found it a little unfortunate that DNA day falls so close to Earth Day (April 22). Clearly the latter is more recognized and celebrated throughout the world. Wouldn’t we do better to celebrate DNA Day six months from now, when it might get a little more attention? But in considering it further, I think we can benefit from the opportunity to celebrate DNA and our planet at the same time. If nothing else, it provides a perfect opportunity to tackle one of the biggest challenges we face in genomics education: Genetic Determinism.

Genetic determinism’ or the prevailing perception that our genes determine health and dictate our behaviour, is a misconception that healthcare providers and the genetics community tackle daily. In reality, we know that genes are only one piece of the puzzle. Our genes plus our environment and the complex interaction between the two must be considered in order gain a realistic understanding of health and disease risk.

A recent reminder of the perils of genetic determinism came in a New York Times article titled ‘Study says DNA power to predict illness is limited.’ This article reported on a study that looked at over 50,000 identical twins in relation to 24 common health conditions to determine how often one or both twins developed a particular condition. As the author reports,

Since identical twins share all of their genes, the investigators could ask to what extent genes predict an increased chance of getting a disease. Using a mathematical model, they reached an answer: not much. Most people will be at average risk for most of the 24 diseases.

So, what would the average person reading this article (or just the headline) likely take away from it? Probably: genes don’t matter.

I’ve found that I can measure how much traction a study has gained by the number of personal emails I receive from friends and family linking to a particular source. Needless to say, this was a particularly ‘hyped’ study. And one that I found quite frustrating, not because of what the findings were, but rather how the findings were being portrayed. I was not alone in this sentiment as evident by the amount of online chatter that ensued. Erika Check Hayden over at Nature News Blog nicely summed up the sentiment:

Geneticists don’t dispute the idea that genes aren’t the only factor that determines whether we get sick; many of them agree with that point. The problem, geneticists say, is not that the study… arrived at a false conclusion, but that it arrived at an old, familiar one via questionable methods and is now being portrayed by the media as a new discovery that undermines the value of genetics.

So, essentially just because your genes aren’t everything, doesn’t mean your genes are nothing.

The fact that genetic determinism continues to persist as a mainstream perception illustrates that we, as the scientific community, simply aren’t doing enough to communicate the ‘genes plus environment’ message to the general public. Or, we need to consider new approaches to delivering this message. As scientist and science writer Christine Wilcox argues:

…scientists pass the buck when it comes to communicating science. We write the papers, but then hand them off to journalists and say “here, explain this to everyone else.” … Then, we gripe and moan when the science is shottily explained or, worse, completely misinterpreted.

This argument can be extended beyond researchers to healthcare providers, and the genetics community in particular. For genetic counsellors specifically, our business is communication. Which brings us back to DNA Day: this day is not only an important initiative, but a yearly reminder that we could all be doing a little (or a lot) more.

This blog post was originally published on www.theGenoScape.com.

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Whole Genome Sequencing and Calculating Risk Tolerance

I often liken the human genome to a savings bond. When we get it, we overpay. Eventually– barring an economic meltdown (or genomic bubble)—it matures. For most of us the return on investment will be low. But for a few of us, the return on investment will be substantial.

- Misha Angrist, Personalized Medicine 2011 8(6), pg 654

Most people who have met with a financial advisor have probably used some sort of Risk Tolerance Calculator at some point in time. These calculation tools are meant to help give you and the advisor an accurate sense of the types of investments and portfolios that are likely to be right for you. My husband and I went through this exercise again recently and it was interesting for me to see how different our risk tolerances are. I started thinking that this type of risk tolerance tool could be applied in a genetic counselling context, especially with respect to whole genome sequencing.

Last week John Lauerman published an article describing his experience with whole genome sequencing (through the Personal Genome Project) and his struggle to come to terms with his results: learning he carries a potentially life-threatening gene mutation. He reviews his results with Aubrey Milunksy, a Harvard geneticist who expressed concern over the reporter’s decision to participate in the genome sequencing research project. Their conversation highlights the two very different ways to look at the same information:

“You know it’s there, but you don’t know what it means,” [Milunksy] said. “You’re smack in the territory of inviting anxiety into your life. And this may have no meaning whatsoever in your entire life.” I disagreed. The results had actually taken some uncertainty out of my life, I told Milunsky… I have a rare mutation linked to rare conditions, most cases of which can be treated. Wouldn’t it make sense for me to undergo a blood test regularly to see whether my blood counts had changed?

In my role at Medcan, I counsel healthy people who are undergoing SNP-based genomic testing for preventative health reasons. Our current testing panel is centered on: 1) common diseases 2) SNPs that have the highest level of validation and 3) health conditions where ‘actionable’ preventative recommendations can be given. Clients have the option to opt-out of receiving certain results (for late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, for example), although anecdotally very few patients actively opt-out of receiving information. Conversely, clients routinely ask about the possibility to know ‘everything.’ These individuals aren’t concerned that there is no preventative recommendations related to particular health condition, they are just interested and curious to access as much info as they can. Just like John Lauerman, these are the type of people who would participate in the Personal Genome Project, if it were available to them in Canada.

A new genetic counselling challenge

Whole genome sequencing (WGS) presents a new challenge for the field of genetic counselling. It is impossible for genetic counsellors not to think about how different our role will be in the context of clinical results of an entire genome. In my opinion, it is not necessarily the ambiguity of the results that poses the biggest challenge (most of us already deal with ambiguous results on a daily basis), but rather the sheer volume of data that seems insurmountable. Most genetic counsellors will spend about 30-45 minutes with a client discussing genetic testing for a single gene. Using our current model, it seems incomprehensible to review results of a whole genome sequence.

To date, this issue has mostly been discussed in the context of returning WGS results to research participants. In his 2011 article in Personalized Medicine, Misha Angrist argues that the ‘feasibility issue’ shouldn’t be used as a reason not to return research results. Similarly, I agree that lack of feasibility should not be a reason to keep WGS out of the clinic. There are new models of care and new technological tools that can be developed to address the feasibility issue.

Genetic counselling ’risk tolerance’ tool

So, how do you manage to provide comprehensive genetic counselling in the context of piles and piles of data? I think the key is to find a way to distinguish between what people can know and what people want to know. The obvious idea (and similar to what we currently use at Medcan in counselling about the SNP-based genome testing) would be to create a comprehensive checklist of health conditions that people would like to opt-out of receiving. For understandable reasons this would be overly cumbersome and incredibly time consuming.

A more interesting thought would be to develop a ‘risk tolerance’ tool to help identify the type of information that an individual is comfortable receiving. This, when used in the context of pre- and post-test genetic counselling, could be a way to have patients start to think about the potential implications of various types of results and whether or not this is information that they’d like to know. Personalized reports could then be generated based on categorizing findings according to (for example):

  1.  Clinical validity (known disease associated vs. variants of unknown significance)
  2. Actionability (definitive clinical recommendations, some clinical recommendations, or no recommendations)

There are various ways to design this type of tool and personalized report. But a built-in mechanism to provide updated reports to reflect changes in categories or changes in patient decision-making (which may shift based on age, circumstance, health status) would be important.

As far as I know, I don’t think this sort of tool is being used currently, although I’d love to hear from genetic counsellors working in WGS research settings or in those clinics that are offering whole exome sequencing for complex cases. I do think this type of tool should be trialed in a research context, so when it comes time for clinical applications we are prepared to deal with the deluge of data.

While there are clearly differences between the financial application of a Risk Tolerance tool and one that is applied to health, disease prevention and diagnostics, I think this is an important concept to consider. The same justification that can be used to argue against a one-size-fits-all approach to medicine can be used when it comes to whole genome sequencing. As patients increasingly become more involved in their healthcare, it is important that we are armed with the tools to enable individuals to decide the type of information that they want to know.

This blog post was originally published on www.theGenoScape.com

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Why We Love Genetics: A Group Post by The Staff of The DNA Exchange

We suspect that many genetic counselors out there got hooked on genetics by an intriguing bit of information, something that grabbed your attention and made you say “Hey, that’s pretty cool. I want to learn more about this field.” Sure we all want to help people and be good counselors, but the intellectual stimulation of the complex field of genetics also plays a critical role in keeping the spark in your career relationship.

So, in a slightly belated Valentine’s Day posting, we wonks and nerds here at the DNA Exchange (well, there is no “here” here, just 5 of us who email back and forth on an irregular basis) decided to provide some Genetic Factoids that caught our fancy. They include the profound, the moving, the questionable, the near sensationalist, and some gee whiz stuff. Be stimulated by them, have fun with them, and in the Comments section, share your fave facts about genetics with our readers.

 During the course of mammalian evolution, the RNA of  retro- and other viruses have become integrated into host genomes, thanks to that clever devil of an enzyme, reverse transcriptase. Currently about 8% of the human genome is derived from these viruses. And these are not just inconsequential inert bits of DNA. Some viruses play a critical role in mammalian biology. For example,  the HERV-W retrovirus plays an important role in placental physiology, and, by one estimate, 0.4% of human genetic diseases are the result of insertions of Alu elements of retroviral origin. On top of that, about 90% of the cells in the human body are not actually human, as we are inhabited by a large populations of bacteria and other microbes (biology makes for strange bedfellows). Among other things, this calls into question just how much we are defined by “our” DNA, as well as  how we delineate the borders between species. It also makes me smile about our growing obsession with germophobic practices. (Horie M, et al. Endogenous non-retroviral RNA virus elements in mammalian genomes. Nature , 2010, 463:84-7Ryan F.  Human endogenous retroviruses in health and disease: a symbiotic perspective. J R Soc Med, 2010, 97:560-5.Katzourakis A, Gifford RJ. Endogenous viral elements in animal genomes. PLoS Genetics, 2010, 6(11):e1001191)

♥ The largest mammalian gene family has nothing to do with placentas, fur, intelligence, or  behavior. Instead,  the award for body system with the most DNA devoted to it goes to the olfactory system. Three percent of the human genome codes for olfactory receptors, more than the combined total of genes devoted to immunoglobulin and T-cell receptors. The smell of love is in the air, we have the genes to help us detect it, and Chanel takes advantage of that. (Shepherd GM  Neurogastronomy: How the brain creates flavor and why it matters. 2011.  Columbia Univ. Press)

 During the early 1990s, two out of three of deaths among men with hemophilia were the result of AIDS related complications, the majority of which were young men who had acquired the virus during transfusion treatments. In 2009, about half of all people diagnosed with hemophilia in the United States were infected with the Hepatitis C virus. One disease’s cure is another disease’s cause (vide infra, PKU) (Committee Reports, 111th Congress (2009-2010), House Report 111-220, Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and Related Agencies Appropriation Bill, 2010.;  Soucie JM et al. Mortality among males with hemophilia: relations with source of medical care. Blood. 2011. 96:437-42.)

♥ In the United States in 2009, there were as many babies exposed to maternal PKU as there were babies born with PKU. Given the inadequate funding for follow-up of patients who have genetic diseases detected by newborn screening and the potentially harmful effects of maternal PKU, the benefits of PKU newborn screening in preventing developmental disabilities hang in a delicate balance. It also makes one wonder what surprises the law of unintended consequences holds for expanded newborn screening (vide supra, hemophilia). (Resta R (2012) Generation n + 1: Projected Numbers of Babies Born to Women with PKU Compared to Babies with PKU in the United States in 2009. Am J Med Genet (in press).)
 

 A study of 194 DNA exonerations of criminal convictions found that witness/victim misidentification was a factor in 75% of wrongful convictions. False confessions were obtained in 30% of the cases, and jailhouse/government informants played a role in 22% of false convictions. Invalid forensic science testimony played a significant role in wrongful convictions, including serology (38% of cases, mostly blood, saliva, semen, and vaginal fluids), hair comparisons (22%), fingerprinting (2%), and bite mark analysis (3%) (And CSI make it look so easy and objective). Of exonerees, 58% were African American, and 43% of crimes were classified as cross-race (i.e., a perpetrator of one race committing a crime against a victim of a different race). DNA  plays a critical role in the legal system. Still, I am shocked by proposed state laws that require collecting DNA at the time of arrest (not at the time of conviction). (Hampikian G, et al.  The genetics of innocence: Analysis of 194 US DNA exonerations. Ann Rev Genomics Hum Genet. 2011. 12:97-120.)

 About 8-9% of dizygotic twins are the result of more than one coition and 1/400 dizygotic twins born to married white women in the US are bipaternal. Some people are very romantic. ( James WH. The incidence of superfecundation and of double paternity in the general population. Acta Genet Med Gemellol (Roma).1993. 42(3-4):257-62.)

 Elizabeth Taylor’s thick eyelashes were the result of a mutation in FOXC2, which can cause lymphedema-distichiasis syndrome (though she did not appear to have “photo”-phobia). (Elizabeth by J. Randy Taraborrelli, Grand Central Publishing, 2006).

♥ Because of a mutation and in-breeding, the town of Sao Pedro, Brazil has a 10% rate of twinning. Most of the twins have blue eyes and blond hair, which had raised suspicions that the unusual number of twins was the legacy of some peculiar science experiment by German ex-pat in hiding Josef Mengele (Nazi ‘Angel of Death’ Not Responsible for Town of Twins,  New Scientist, January 27, 2009).

 Levels of gene expression for genes involved in fighting infection are lower in people who are lonely, according to researcher Stephen Cole (Ah, yes, but the lonely suffer less from heartache).(Cole S. et al., Social regulation of gene expression in human leukocytes. Genome Biology, 2007, 8:R189).

 In a study by Muscarella and Cunningham, males and females viewed 6 male models with different levels of facial hair (beard and mustache or none) and cranial hair (full head of hair, receding and bald). Participants rated each combination on 32 adjectives related to social perceptions. Males with facial hair and those with bald or receding hair were rated as being older than those who were clean-shaven or had a full head of hair. Beards and a full head of hair were seen as being more aggressive and less socially mature, and baldness was associated with more social maturity.Of course, social maturity is very difficult to measure in men. (From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baldness; Muscarella, F. & Cunningham, MR. The evolutionary significance and social perception of male pattern baldness and facial hair. Ethology and Sociobiology, 1996, 17 (2): 99–117. doi:10.1016/0162-3095(95)00130-1).

 If you were to recite the ATCG sequence in your own DNA (which is 3 billion bases pairs long) and uttered 100 ATCG sequences per minute without taking a break for sleeping, eating, or drinking, you would speak for 57 long years. Not so helpful for maintaining close relationships.

 1000 cell nuclei could be squeezed into a period mark at the end of a sentence. (http://www.geneplanet.com/the_abcs_of_genetic_analysis/interesting_genetic_facts)

 A report in Scientific American in late 2011 looked at the websites that were most commonly linked to by science-lovers on Twitter. There are several flaws inherent in the “study design,” but regardless it is interesting to note that Genetics and Astronomy were very closely linked: meaning people who linked to Astronomy articles & content were more likely to also link to Genetics content and visa versa (Hey there Genetic Counselor, you with the stars in your eyes). Other interesting correlations included Physics and Fashion as well as the fact that Chemistry appeared to be an outlier, not being linked to any other science.
In terms of heritability versus shared environmental effects, genetic factors account for 50-64% of an individual’s right-wing authoritarian attitudes with 0-16% due to shared environmental effects, while genetic factors account for approximately 54% of an individual’s extraversion, 49% of their conscientiousness and 57% of their openness with no appreciable shared environmental effects. (Bouchard TJ. Genetic Influence on Human Psychological Traits. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2004;13(4):148-51.)

 And, of course, let us never forget The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine.

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The Myth of the Designer Baby

A couple of months ago I was interviewed by a few undergraduate students doing a class project on Reproductive Genetics. As  anticipated, their questions centered on new technologies, such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis, and then quickly veered toward the topic of  creating ‘designer babies.’ After completing the interview, I felt like I had  taken the wind out of their sails. For all of their enthusiasm and controversial questioning, I had simply and consistently reiterated two points:

  1. We don’t have the scientific understanding and capacity to pick and choose for cosmetic traits.*
  2. In my honest (and perhaps wishful) opinion, I hope we never gain the ability to do so.

I was reminded of that interview when The Globe and Mail ran a front-page story at the beginning of January: ‘Unnatural selection: Is evolving reproductive technology ushering in a new age of eugenics?‘ It is a piece that we have all read a dozen times before, with quotes from GATTACA to boot. As I started in on the article though, I had a brief moment of self-doubt. More specifically, I wondered if my own ‘wishful thinking’ (point number 2, above) might cloud my judgement and ability to see what is actually being offered in the real world.  What if someone is offering testing in the realm of ‘designer babies’ that I am not aware of?

In the end, contrary to what the title suggests, the article mostly focused on Mendelian diseases and the well-known ethical ‘slippery slope’ discussion. It was also chock full of quotes from medical professionals who bluntly state that we don’t have the capability to select for cosmetic traits, and will likely never have the ability to accurately do so.

There were still things in the article that surprised me, though. For one, the openness of PGD gender selection testing being routinely offered by a US-based center for non-medical indications. I also learned about a fertility center called Natera, that has considered using PGD to test for common complex disease, such as psoriasis. (In looking into the company further I was happy to see that they have a number of genetic counselors on staff.) Most notably, I was surprised by quotes from a number of fertility specialists who say they routinely get questions about whether they can select for specific cosmetic traits.

Dr. Steinberg’s work in Tinsel Town means that he is well acquainted with such desires. “We get requests for all kinds of things. We had a pop star inquiring if her vocal abilities could be passed on to her children,” and elite athletes asking, “Do you think you could make it a tall boy?”

The thorn in a genetic counselor’s side

As genetic counselors, we will spend the rest of our professional lives explaining that our role does not involve the creation of ‘designer babies.’ This is a professional hazard that we have no choice but to accept.  As frustrating as this perpetual conversation may be, at least right now we have the science to fall back on: We can‘t do that. We don‘t do that.

But, what if? What if the science gets there, and the myth of the ‘designer baby’ becomes a reality?

I’m pretty confident that we will not see a day when parents routinely use reproductive technologies to select for cosmetic traits, or even against multifactorial diseases. The complexity of the genome is too great, and the gene-gene, gene-environment, epigenetic interactions too numerous and minute to control. But, maybe I’m just blinded by my  personal opinions on the matter.

I’d love to hear what others think. Cast your vote and/or share your thoughts below.

*Cosmetic traits being used to describe polygenic phenotypic traits, such as height, eye color, hair color etc.

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