Guest Post: Adrienne Asch – Reflections from a Genetic Counselor

by Katie Stoll

Katie Stoll is a genetic counselor in Washington State. She graduated from the Brandeis University training program in 2003 and since that time has held positions in the areas of prenatal, pediatric and cancer genetic counseling.

We recently said good-bye to Adrienne Asch, a thoughtful and powerful voice in bioethics, disability, and reproductive rights. Adrienne passed away at her home in New York on November 19, 2013, surrounded by the love of many friends and family.

Adrienne touched my life deeply in the brief time I knew her and I am grateful to have had a connection with her. Her perspective has significantly shaped the way I view the genetic counseling profession and my role within it.

Adrienne was an accomplished scholar and an incredible person. Several beautiful tributes speak of character and her accomplishments, and these only give us a glimpse of her impressive body of work. See the The New York Times, as well as blogs related to philosophy, feminism, and bioethics for more about Adrienne.

Many genetic counselors are aware of Adrienne’s focus on the intersection of disability rights with reproductive technologies.   She was supportive of abortion rights, but questioned the implications of prenatal diagnosis and selection for disability rights, for individual parent expectations, and for humanity. She asked the question, if individuals with disabilities are not welcomed into family life, how can we expect inclusion in schools, in the work place, in society?

In her scholarly work, Adrienne spoke frequently about the parent-child relationship, and I had often wondered about her personal experiences as a child in this relationship. I came across the transcript of a fantastic interview with Adrienne conducted by Anna Kirkland at the University of Michigan, in 2006. I was delighted to find these insights into Adrienne’s own family life and it is heartening to realize that Adrienne’s views on this topic were in part shaped by her own childhood experiences of being supported to be true to herself:

“My parents taught me to think for myself and to be comfortable with who I was, even if people around me weren’t entirely comfortable with who I was either as a leftwing type or somebody who loved classical music, or someone who was Jewish, or someone who was blind. So they just taught me to be myself.” 

At one point the interviewer asking Adrienne if she had ever had the opportunity to address genetic counseling students. Adrienne has been an outspoken critic of prenatal diagnosis and this has made her quite a controversial figure among genetic counselors.

Anna: I’d be interested to know, have you ever had the opportunity to address a group of genetic counseling students or…or… 

Adrienne:  Yes. I have. 

Anna: Yeah. How did that go? 

Adrienne:  Not well. 

Anna: [laughs] What [laughs]…what did you say to them? 

Adrienne:  The same kind of thing I’m saying to you. But it challenges…I mean, maybe that I haven’t said it gently and kindly enough and I’m trying to do that. I have sympathy for how difficult it is to do this work. But I have no sympathy for people telling me that parents aren’t interested in this information or it’s not appropriate to give them the kinds of information that I’m describing. I think in fact that’s what genuine information is.

Recently, I had a chance to work closely with Adrienne when she helped to conceptualize a symposium for the National Society of Genetic Counselors Annual Education Conference, Reaching for Common Ground: Prenatal Genetic Counseling and Disability Equality. Although  Adrienne’s health prevented her from traveling to Los Angeles for the meeting, she was determined to hear all of the presentations live and to participate in the conversation. We achieved this through the technological miracles of cell phones, speakers and microphones for the entire 6 hour conference and this allowed her to both listen and contribute to the conversation.

In early October, she recorded a video for this conference and the National Society of Genetic Counselors has kindly allowed me to share it here. I encourage you all to take the time to listen to Adrienne’s final address to genetic counselors. I think she finds the balance she was striving for in being sympathetic to the difficulties inherent in the work of genetic counseling and remaining strong in her challenge to our profession to be more than genetic educators.

In genetic counseling, you have an enormously important role to play in helping prospective parents’ to think about the meaning for themselves of the genetic impairments or prenatally diagnosable impairments that they might discover in a fetus or an embryo.   And the role that you have to play is not genetics education alone.  It is genuine counseling.  It is counseling with a genetic component.  But it is dialogic counseling.  It is not merely reciting facts about laws and services and family support for people with Down syndrome.  It’s not reciting how wonderful it is and how loving the children are…It’s not reciting how terrible it is and how bad group homes might be.  It’s asking parents to think about the goals they have for their family life and how a child with characteristics that they can know in advanced will affect the achievement of those goals… The other reason you have a big job is that you are not given much time in which to do it. And all of the institutional forces work against that kind of conversation.  But I am urging that genetic counselors take their respective places as counselors to really help prospective parents think through what they want for their family life.  How a particular characteristic or impairment will affect that…

…Just as life is made up of many experiences that are shareable, you don’t need to have particular characteristics in common to share a life and to share experiences.  And you as a genetic counselor have an opportunity to communicate that to prospective parents. And ask prospective parents to think about what they want in their family’s lives.  And whether a child with a particular characteristic you can name in advanced will make the achievement of those goals any harder or any less possible. 

That’s a job of real counseling.  It’s not a job of imposing your values.  It can be as nondirective as you like but it is a job of asking questions maybe questions parents don’t want to be asked but that’s often true of any counseling.  No therapist worth his or her salt merely smiles and nods and says, “Ahah!”, and says, “I see what you mean”.  Therapy and counseling are about asking people to reflect and think twice or three times about the views and the values they are bringing to their lives.  You don’t have three years or 3 months or sometimes even 3 weeks to do that with the people in front of you.  But in the 45 minutes to an hour that you have, or if you’re lucky, more than that, you have a chance to communicate the joys of parenthood, the problems of parenthood, and the ways in which a child with any set of characteristics may or may not fulfill the goals that a parent has.”

Part of our fundamental core professional values as genetic counselors is to be non-directive in our counseling – not to decide the morally ‘right’ path for pour patients. We strive to support individuals to choose the path that they decide is right for them. Our responsibility as genetic counselors is to do our best to make certain that the decisions people make are as informed as possible.

What Adrienne helped to crystallize for me is that part of ensuring informed decisions requires inquiry into of the prospective parent’s expectations, hopes and dreams. It may also call for us to challenge misconceptions about how life with a disability is imagined and this may need to begin first with examining our own misconceptions and biases.

Adrienne certainly dismantled my preconceptions about life and limitations for someone who has been blind since shortly after birth. Although too short, her life was undeniably rich and full and her contributions were many. I imagine there are many DNA Exchange readers who have some interesting reflections about Adrienne of their own. I hope you will share them here.

2 Comments

Filed under Guest Blogger

THE FDA CALLS A PENALTY ON 23andMe

IS THIS THE GAME WE WANT TO PLAY?

On Monday, the FDA celebrated the start of the holiday season by sending a letter to 23andMe, informing the direct-to-consumer personal genomics service that they must cease and desist offering their signature test.  The proximal cause of this action, as described by the FDA and not disputed by the company, was that 23andMe had ceased to participate in a process of establishing their PGx test as “validated for its intended uses.”  They had, the FDA suggested, dropped the ball – well, not just dropped the ball, but kicked it out of bounds, an old soccer trick for delay of game, which Mya Thomae and Dylan Reinhardt suggest might have been exactly what the company had in mind, playing for time while they attempted to accumulate better data than what-all they have right now.

The FDA move prompted a vast twitterlanche of commentary, ranging from indignant outrage to smug satisfaction (Dietrich Stephan, founder of the erstwhile DTC competitor Navigenics, said, “Engaging the FDA as a partner to bring the most robust and safe new type of test to market is diagnostics 101”).  Genetic counselors might be suspected of indulging in a bit of schadenfreude, since the relationship between 23andMe and the GC community has inclined in the direction of mutually suspicious, if not downright frosty.   The company, which advocates for access to one’s DNA information with almost a religious fervor, sees GC’s as gatekeepers, as a self-anointed coterie of priestesses guarding the oracle at Delphi.  Genetic counselors, for their part, tend to perceive the very existence of 23andMe as an affront, as though the possibility that a subset of people might benefit from genetic testing without access to counseling was insult and injury — an existential threat.

To be fair, nobody reacts well to the suggestion that their chosen profession is a cabal that threatens the freedom and well-being of fellow citizens – not even investment bankers, and at least they get to soothe their wounded souls with lots of material goods.  But pettiness is unbecoming and unproductive, and we would all do well to remember that a groundbreaking organization like 23andme is a part of the energy and excitement of the field – an expression of an explorer’s mentality that draws people to the potential of genetics in 2013.  That’s not only fun and sort of cool but also incredibly powerful because it attracts the kind of intelligence and curiosity that makes big new ideas possible (David Dobbs does a thoughtful and balanced job making the case for 23andMe in this piece for the New Yorker).

So minus any animus toward 23andMe, was this a reasonable move by the FDA?  There are two main questions that have been raised: 1. can they regulate? and 2. should they regulate? (a third question, HOW DARE THEY?, has also gotten a lot of play but I am going to ignore that one because, c’mon guys get over yourselves this isn’t ONE STEP FROM TOTALITARIANISM).  The first one takes up the issue of whether or not a personal genomics test falls under the FDA jurisdiction.  I am going to say yes, but will not rehash those arguments here, since they have been more ably covered elsewhere – I particularly recommend this piece by Hank Greely at the Stanford Law School Center for Law and the Biosciences blog.

So, should they regulate?  The rationale for regulatory action in the letter to 23andMe is a risk of harm to customers, including the possibility that a customer might alter his medication without medical advice or misunderstand her risk for breast cancer and have an unnecessary prophylactic mastectomy.  While theoretically true, it seems wildly unlikely that very many people would insist on a mastectomy without getting more information than mail-order genetic results – and those cases might be more indicative of out-of-control anxiety issues and irresponsible medical practice than the power of a PGx report.  More commonly, misunderstanding the limits of the test in terms of risk reduction might empower a customer to skip out on appropriate preventative measures. Either way, this is nothing new — a rehash of concerns genetic counselors have had about DTC testing since its inception.  In practice, perhaps the best summary of the clinical impact to date comes from Anders Nordgren, who called it “Neither as harmful as feared by critics nor as empowering as promised by providers.”  Having spent hours poking through the generally well-written and thorough 23andMe reports, and spoken to some of their customers, I would suggest that misunderstanding the results that come from 23andMe could pose some risk — real risk, to be sure, but limited risk.

However, it is possible to envision a scenario where a genetic testing sold DTC did pose a significant danger to consumers, with inaccurate results, irresponsible advice, tests used to market scam treatments or preventatives.  None of this is farfetched, and some of it has already been documented.  For this reason alone, the possibility of FDA action is an important deterrent.  A company like 23andMe, which makes real efforts to be thoughtful and responsible, will ultimately benefit from the restraint on less scrupulous entities.  And of course, it is possible that 23andMe would have been less thoughtful and less responsible if they had not been motivated by the threat of FDA action.  So arguments against regulation in general based on the fact that 23andMe is well-intentioned are misguided.

But despite a bias in favor of showing some muscle, I have questions about how much time and energy the FDA should spend cracking down on the likes of 23andMe.  Is it, I wonder, the best use of resources?  For one thing, attempts to stop the free flow of information in 2013 are fingers in the dike. Razib Khan at Slate expands on this argument, suggesting that companies pushed by the FDA could simply move offshore, away from any regulation.

And more importantly from my point of view, the emphasis on negative action diverts us from the possibility of doing something positive.  Rather than keeping consumers away from tests we think are insufficiently documented, how about providing a resource to the general public that endorses tests that are ready for prime time?  After all, a few bold individuals may be excited at the prospect of downloading Promethease to query their own exome data but most people would rather not, thank you very much.  Most people would be happy to have some guidance.  They can get that guidance from the company, but even the classy companies have a vested interest in hyping the significance of their results – that’s what they’re selling, right?  There is an opportunity here for the government and the genetics community to create a trusted source of information that is neutral, unbiased and supports a best-case scenario use of genetic testing by those eager to take the plunge.  Hell, you could imagine tying in such a resource to something like ClinVar or GenVar, so that early adapters could contribute to publically accessible databases rather than giving it to 23andMe to sell.

After years of running up and down the pitch, the FDA has demonstrated that it knows how to blow the whistle – that’s good.  I’m pretty sure 23andMe will be back – and that’s good too.  But if we really want something great to come out of this discussion, let’s stop doing color commentary on the FDA action, and imagine what it could be like if we changed the game.

Follow me on twitter!

10 Comments

Filed under Laura Hercher

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Allie Janson Hazell

Caught In The Act

I keep a bowl of chocolates on a table situated between the two chairs that accommodate patients in my office. It is a simple gesture, a small attempt at creating a friendlier environment for conducting the sometimes scary business of genetic counseling. I spread enough bad jujus as part and parcel of my work; I can try to do a little something to offset the negative karma. And it is decent chocolate, not Halloween rejects or forgotten treats that have been lurking in the back of the snack cupboard since the Clinton administration.

Although my chocolate stash has not provided great insight into the psychological complexity of genetic counseling, it has been a surprising and at times amusing source of insight into human behavior on a micro-scale. As they used to say on the old Candid Camera television show, I catch people in the act of being themselves.

Guys, for the most part, walk in, see the chocolate, and say “Hey, great, chocolate!” and then unabashedly help themselves to a few pieces. Many women, however, tend to have a more complicated relationship with chocolate. Here I share a few examples that illustrate this tangled web.

Maybe He Won’t See Me: This is the most common scenario. They want chocolate but do not want to be “caught” eating in front of me, as if somehow it violated social norms or might shape my opinion of them. As we engage in the counseling process, their eyes involuntarily sneak sideways glances at the bowl, the siren call of the miraculously transformed pods of Theobroma cacao too alluring to resist (One patient actually begged a là Odysseus “Please, before I eat it all, tie my hands to the arms of this chair.”). They can get wily too, waiting for an opportunity that distracts my attention, such as when I turn my back to them to complete a test request form or leave the room to photocopy some paperwork, and then sneak a piece or three. Either they quickly unwrap and eat it, hoping that I did not detect the maneuver, or sequester their pilfered pleasure into their purses. If I happen to notice their covert actions, they voluntarily offer an explanation along the lines of “Oh, I just wanted to bring home a piece for my son. He really likes chocolate.” What, like your kid expects a treat every time his mother has a doctor’s appointment?

Get It Away From Me:  Here will power is a serious problem. They sit down and unthinkingly pluck pieces out of the bowl without ever taking their eyes off of me, their uncannily accurate radar guiding them to their personal dark or milk chocolate preference. After a few minutes they realize that they have worked their way through four or five pieces and plead “Please, take this away and hide it in a drawer.” It reminds me of the slyly clever Cookies episode from Arnold Lobel’s delightful Frog and Toad children’s books.

Oh Heck, Why Not?: Like good Christians shunning Satan’s temptations, these patients nobly avoid the chocolate for the duration of the session. But as they prepare to leave, they steal a longing glance at the bowl, torn between desire and decorum. I usually suggest that they take a piece to reward themselves after an emotionally exhausting counseling session or to recover from the physical trauma of their upcoming blood draw. “Oh, I shouldn’t ….. well, alright. I guess I can have one piece since I didn’t get chocolate syrup drizzled on the whip cream on my morning mocha. I will save it for after lunch.” Perhaps in the complicated calculus of calories and diets chocolate has fewer calories after lunch or the mocha counts as Morning Calories and the chocolate as Afternoon Calories.

Calories and Insulin: These patients first pass the chocolate under their noses before popping it into their mouths, like an oenophile sniffing a Premier cru Bordeaux. They savor the pleasure of the silky sweet sensation on their tongues and palates, torn between swallowing and lingering on the moment and sometimes emit a quietly restrained orgasmic “Mmmm.” Then I think back to my review of their medical records and recall multiple appointments at the Diabetes Wellness Program or the Weight Control Clinic, and I feel like a bad clinician who should have planned more carefully for the needs of my patients.

The No Holds Barred Chocolate Addict: Social etiquette is quickly abandoned as these patients unselfconsciously dig into the bowl like Hansel and Gretel in the witch’s cottage. They think nothing of emptying the bowl and leaving only the crumpled wrappings, making it look as if a swarm of locusts had descended on my office. A patient once asked “Do you have any more dark chocolate? My sister just ate the last piece, and I really don’t care for milk chocolate.”

Should Seymour Kessler or Jon Weil reads this piece, no doubt he will roll his eyes and think “For crissakes, Bob, didn’t you learn anything from my teachings? You need to be attending to the profound psychosocial aspects of genetic counseling and the alleviation of human suffering.” Well, Jon and Seymour, I do strive to be a serious and insightful counselor. But sometimes patients – and I – need a piece of chocolate too.

3 Comments

Filed under Robert Resta

Guest Post: NIPS And The Threat To Informed Decision Making

by Katie Stoll

Katie Stoll is a genetic counselor in Washington State. She graduated from the Brandeis University training program in 2003 and since that time has held positions in the areas of prenatal, pediatric and cancer genetic counseling.

A few months ago, I reached out to the DNA Exchange readership and called for more truth in advertising by the Noninvasive Prenatal Screening companies regarding the accuracy of test results. I recently returned from the National Society of Genetic Counselors meeting where I had the opportunity to survey the marketing and patient materials from labs offering NIPS and to learn about the experiences of my fellow genetic counselors with these new tests.

Not surprisingly, in this dynamic and rapidly evolving field, all of the companies have updated their materials. Some brochures proudly acknowledge how quickly this testing is being integrated into clinical use. It feels like we are being patted on the back for adopting this new test quickly and without question.

I remain very concerned about the misleading claims in the marketing materials aimed at providers and in the patient directed brochures. It is easy to see how the language of the brochures could lead healthcare providers and patients to conclude that these tests are diagnostic or near-diagnostic. These quotes from the materials illustrate my point:

“Definite, informative results.”

“Positive or negative results.  Never maybe.”

“No confusion.  Just simple, clear results.”

To my knowledge, there are no new large studies to dispel my concerns about the positive predictive value of NIPS. Depending on the prior probability, a significant portion of positive results may be false positives– especially with rarer conditions such as Trisomy 18 and Trisomy 13. And because these technologies have been rapidly integrated into clinical practice based on limited research, we do not have robust outcome data to see how false positive and false negative data are playing out in clinical practice.

Since most NIPS testing is done outside of a clinical research protocol, the labs that choose to put resources into follow-up are at the mercy of the providers to share that outcomes information.  Even in the best scenarios, voluntarily reported outcome data are not likely to tell the whole story. I spoke with a testing company representative regarding a poster presented at ACMG last year which based its false positive and false negative results on ad hoc feedback. When I inquired about the meaning of ad hoc feedback, it was explained to me that the company didn’t have the resources to track outcomes so were relying on providers to let them know if the testing results were incorrect. Of course, if a patient terminates her pregnancy based on a false positive test result, nobody will know that the NIPS result was incorrect.

Don’t think a patient would terminate based on NIPS alone? We all hope that women who receive adequate counseling about the limitations of the testing would confirm results with a diagnostic test, but this is not always the case. At a presentation during the recent NSGC Annual Education Conference, one lab referenced preliminary data showing some patients are terminating pregnancies without first getting diagnostic testing, and in the absence of ultrasound findings. While this tracking has some limitations, this lab should be applauded for investing resources in tracking outcomes data and for sharing these data with genetic counselors. Hopefully we will see it published soon and other labs will follow suit.

This situation of patients making reproductive decisions based only on NIPS results may be particularly problematic in communities that don’t have ready access to genetic counseling and/or maternal fetal medicine services.

Imagine this scenario:  a 35-year-old woman living in small town, USA who has limited access to abortion services beyond the first trimester, receives a positive result for Trisomy 13. Based on positive predictive values calculations, there is an 8% chance that her “positive” result is a true positive. But, the patient – and her doctor – may think the probability is much higher, maybe even close to 100%, based on the reporting practices of the labs, which may say “Aneuploidy detected” or “Positive” for Trisomy 13. This does not support informed reproductive decisions.

This patient has 3 options:

  1.  Wait for an appointment at a high risk referral center, at some distance from her home to undergo diagnostic testing. This may limit her reproductive options by delaying time to diagnosis (the later a pregnancy termination occurs, the more expensive it is, and pregnancy termination outside of the first trimester is often not available in many smaller communities).
  2. Seek out pregnancy termination options in her local community based on the NIPS results alone – knowing that she is up against a gestational age ticking clock.
  3. Decline further testing and continue the pregnancy.

If the patient feels that she would not want to continue a pregnancy given a Trisomy 13 diagnosis, and she understands the limitations of the testing, I would imagine that she likely would feel it was worth the wait and the travel for diagnostic testing. However, given the emphasis on the accuracy of NIPS based on the lab reports, and the misconception by OB providers that this testing is “nearly diagnostic”, it is easy to imagine a scenario where she may elect to have a termination based on NIPS alone.

Based on an aggregate of data from the NIPS companies from the first quarter of 2013, one health economist estimates that NIPS is utilized by 40% of the high-risk population in the US, and this number is growing rapidly. So while the patients you see in your genetic counseling practice may be very informed about the limitations of the testing given your expert counsel, this statistic suggests that most NIPS is probably taking place outside of our offices.

We must continue the conversation about how NIPS is marketed and used in prenatal care. While the advantages to a more sensitive screening test are obvious (e.g. fewer women needing to undergo diagnostic testing), we must recognize the largely undisclosed limitations and dangers. Without adequate counseling, patients are being harmed by the misleading claims about the accuracy

2 Comments

Filed under Guest Blogger

A SCIENCE WRITER USES HER CHILD’S 23ANDME TESTING EXPERIENCE AS A HOOK, AND CATCHES MORE THAN SHE BARGAINED FOR

Once, when out fishing for flounder, my mother caught a shark.

That story arose in my mind yesterday, as I was reading an article published in FastCompany by a science writer working under a pseudonym.  The writer (who calls herself Elizabeth, so let’s go with that) has a five-year-old daughter adopted from Ethiopia.  Her editor suggests that she do a piece 23andMe from the point of view of a mother considering testing her own little girl.  As for the decision about whether or not to test – that was up to her.

But it’s a better story if you do the test, right?  An even better story if you find out something interesting.  Which is not so likely, since the experts you contact are telling you that most of what 23andMe has to offer is not clinically significant.  A few things that are meaningful, a few things you might not want to know… but Anne Wojcicki, founder of 23andMe, says it is a parent’s duty to arm herself with her child’s genetic blueprint.  Ultimately, Elizabeth says, she finds the ‘knowledge is power’ argument persuasive.

So, anyway the kid turns out to be a ApoE 4 homozygote.  23andMe quotes a 55% chance of ApoE 4 homozygotes being diagnosed with Alzheimers between the ages of 65 and 79.

I spoke with Elizabeth while she was writing the article, but before the test results came back.  “Do you judge me for having my daughter tested,” she asked?  I said no at the time – and for the record, I stick with that.  We were talking then about privacy and confidentiality issues, and in that context I have concerns about the DTC industry in general and 23andMe in particular, but I can completely understand the desire of a mother raising her child without access to any medical or family history to get whatever information she can.  We talked about the limitations of SNP data on common disease.  This wasn’t a genetic counseling session, but I am a genetic counselor, and I am extremely regretful that I didn’t think to discuss ApoE, and perhaps urge her not to unlock that box.

Elizabeth spends the last third of the article grappling with the downstream issues that follow from that significant result.  She acknowledges difficult decisions they will face around when and if to tell the child.  “Never!” suggests a psychologist friend of mine with whom I share this story.  But in my experience information finds it’s way out, no matter how deeply buried, as if knowledge were a seed searching for the sun.  And in this case it is only shallowly interred – after all, she has shared her story in print.  The pseudonym makes it more private, but won’t the ruse – and the reason — be an open secret among her close friends and family?

Interesting to me that 23andMe publicized this story, tweeting about it yesterday morning:

Image

I would have thought this particular personal journey represented something of a worst-case scenario for them.  Judging by reactions among my friends (not very scientific, I know) it was not a great advertisement for their product.  But then, I do them a disservice to suggest that they are simply marketers.  No question, the folks at 23andMe are true believers.  Emily Drabant, a neuroscientist at 23andMe, tells Elizabeth that their database will help pharma locate people with her daughter’s geneotype who don’t get sick, so they can uncover the reasons why some people stay healthy despite their genetic predisposition.

Wherever you stand on DTC, it is easy to see Elizabeth’s story as a parable.  For enthusiasts like Wojcicki, it is a tale about embracing the power of information as a call to action and an opportunity for intervention.  For haters, it is a harbinger of exactly the type of harm they picture when they think about DTC: inappropriate testing of minors, lack of pre-test counseling (that one makes my stomach hurt), post-test distress.   For me, having planted my standard awkwardly in the muddy soil of ambivalence, I see it as further evidence that DTC is a decent option only for a select few, and should not be mistaken for a new world order.

Here is the model set forth in this article: mother tests child, discovers disturbing information, goes on a mission to find out what it means and – hopefully – how to use what she has learned to her kid’s advantage.  This makes for a lovely read (it’s actually a very good article: balanced, well-written, funny at times).  But it’s important to note that to the extent something good comes out of this, it is because Elizabeth has access to resources and information beyond the factually accurate but necessarily limited and impersonal explanation on the 23andMe website.  “Our daughter is going to get Alzheimers,” she wails to her husband, after ‘blundering past the notes of caution’ to unlock her results.  Next steps for a science writer doing a feature on 23andMe?  First, a personal conversation with Anne Wojcicki, who cancels her next appointment when she hears about the ApoE finding.  Discussions with Drabant, the neuroscientist.  Discussions with geneticist Ricki Lewis, and with Bob Green up at Harvard, who spearheaded the REVEAL study that investigated the impact of receiving ApoE results on individuals and family members.  A conversation with Jennifer Wagner, a lawyer specializing in issues related to genetics and genetic discrimination.  We cannot hypothesize that this is the experience of the average consumer.  Wojcicki and the legion of science bloggers who can’t understand why everyone doesn’t want to test their children should consider the likely experience of a parent receiving this result with no more resources than Google and a distant memory of high school biology.

Ultimately, we are informed, Elizabeth comes to terms with the good and bad of genetic testing for her child.  “I choose to think of this as a potentially beautiful new world opening up for her–but one that requires an extraordinarily thoughtful bravery from all of us.”  Even so, she notes that the “best advice” she got was to “burn that damn report and never think of it again.”  Despite the positive rhetoric, her enthusiasm for that advice suggests she learned something she would in retrospect choose not to know.  Elizabeth went fishing for flounder, and caught a shark.  At least my mother could throw her fish back.

ENJOY THIS? FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER

8 Comments

Filed under Laura Hercher

Questions For The Panel

If you are a genetic counselor engaged in testing for hereditary cancers, I suspect you are as bewildered as I am these days. With so many labs offering BRCA testing post Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. it is difficult to know which labs best serve our patients in terms of value, reliability, insurance coverage services, clinical support, and quality assurance. Familiar labs are offering new tests and unfamiliar labs are offering testing at Costco prices. Not to mention various law suits and counter-suits over BRCA testing that make me worry that some judge somewhere is going to tell a lab to put all of its testing on hold, leaving patients’ test results in legal limbo.

But what really has me confused – and not a little bit upset – are the new multi-gene cancer panels.

The advantages of the multi-gene panels are obvious. They are cost-effective. They help avoid pondering “Gee, that family really could have been a Cowden. I really should have run PTEN” into the sleep-disturbed wee hours of the morning. Panels will also probably result in significant syndromology reassessment. If you offer PTEN testing only to families who look like they  have Cowden syndrome,  you lose much of the true clinical variability of the condition. And, with all respect and apologies to Robb Pilarski,  Cowden syndrome is in serious need of re-assessment.

Savvy patients are beginning to demand multi-gene panels because they read about them on the Internet or heard about it at their support groups. And I would not be at all surprised if DTC marketing of gene panels starts to rear its ugly head along side the tadalafil, cyclosporine, ibandronate, and eszopiclone commercials that run during the evening news.

So what’s not to like about  multi-gene panels? Let’s face it – many of us are just plain bored with BRCA testing. Panels all cost about the same price, and not terribly more expensive than just running BRCA1/2. Woe to a clinic that only offers BRCA1/2 testing when their crosstown rival routinely offers multi-gene panels to everyone. And who wants to look like an out-of-it fuddy dud who only offers a test developed in the previous century? Isn’t it great to have a choice to run a 6 gene panel, a 16 gene panel, a 26 gene panel, or a 49 gene panel to suit the needs of patients and clinicians? You just choose the panel that’s right for the patient.

And therein lies the rub. How do I know which panel is right for my patient? Labs offer little in the way of clarification as to why certain genes are included or excluded from a panel. From the clinician’s perspective, it seems like the choices reflect the arbitrary expertise of the lab with certain genes, the economic calculations of a given lab, and the desire to out-gun the other labs – why sail a 6 gun sloop when a 40 gun ship of the line can blow it out of the water? In my darker moments, I think that we sometimes choose a lab because a famous geneticist is affiliated with it or a friend from grad school works there.

If clinicians and the labs are honest about it, most of us have little idea of how to guide patients who have a deleterious mutation in genes like RAD51, GEN1, XRCC2. Sure, most labs provide references that might justify inclusion in the panel. But the labs do not cite contrary articles that suggest the predictive power of the particular gene might be low nor do they mention the paucity of publications on the clinical management implications of many of the genes.

There is also a noticeable absence of information on the demographic, clinical, or family history characteristics that might point to one panel over another. Are mutations in one set of genes more common in Russians, Japanese, or Native Americans? Are weak family histories suggestive of one group of genes and strong family histories indicative of another set of genes? What about age of onset? The tumor’s genetic or pathologic profile? Breast only families? Breast and colon families? Clinicians don’t know and neither do the labs.

A step in the right direction will be the pre-conference symposium on gene panels at the upcoming NSGC Annual Education Conference on October 9th. But that is only small bandage on a gushing artery. Bigger measures are needed, and here I offer a few:

1) The key professional organizations – NSGC, ASCO, SGO, etc. – need to form a joint committee that identifies a minimum set of critical genes that should be included on all breast, ovarian, or whatever cancer panels, à la newborn screening. Labs would be free to include whatever additional tests they would like. A joint panel would prevent each society from recommending its own preferred panel that might result in confusingly different recommendations from other professional organizations. Such a panel must take great pains to avoid any financial or intellectual biases.

2) The genes included on the panels should be rated according to their clinical utility and the strength of the data based on an analysis of peer-reviewed publications.

3) Centralized databases should be established for tracking patient outcomes,  clinical and demographic variables, and variants of uncertain significance. Labs that fail to participate in joint databases should be singled out so that clinicians would have the option not to utilize labs that declined to participate in joint registries. While it is important for labs to stay competitive, fiscally sound, and profitable, we can’t lose sight of the core ethical value that the primary goal of genetic testing is to serve patients, not bottom lines. Failure to share data strangles the tree of patient care at its roots.

4) Lab websites should include a balanced discussion of the pros and cons of why each gene is included in the panel – particularly for those genes that are not recommended by the above suggested joint committee – and a regularly updated link to a Pubmed search for that particular gene, not a simple link to one or two articles.

5) The joint committee could also serve an advisory and educational role to health insurers so that patients have equal access to appropriate testing, regardless of which plans cover them.

No doubt The DNA Exchange’s wise and insightful readership have their own ideas, opinions, and recommendations. Let’s hear about them.

5 Comments

Filed under Robert Resta