Imperfect Pregnancies: What Ilana Löwy Has To Tell Us About The History of Prenatal Testing

“It seems to me that all the gentlemen agree, some more explicitly than others, that to abort is a good thing and should be encouraged.”
– from a discussion reported in Early Diagnosis of Human Genetic Defects: Scientific and Ethical Considerations, Maureen Harris (ed). National Institutes of Health, 1970.

I sometimes feel like a lone voice howling in the wind-swept darkness when I argue that any opinion, policy, or analysis of prenatal testing must be rooted in historical context. Often these endeavors are informed by technical aspects of a test, such as sensitivity, specificity, cost, and positive predictive value, sometimes accompanied by vague mumblings about “ethical considerations” and “women’s choices.” But these discussions are inadequate unless they also take into account the historical, social, cultural, and economic factors behind the development, expansion, acceptance, and critiques of genetic testing technologies.

To develop a full understanding of prenatal testing, we need to ask difficult questions with thorny, complicated and uncomfortable answers. What was the impetus for the introduction of prenatal diagnosis in the 1960s and 1970s? Why were researchers studying birth defects, cell culturing techniques, and karyotypes at that particular time? How have changing attitudes toward disability, abortion, and reproductive rights shaped, and been shaped by, prenatal diagnosis? What path does a test follow from being offered to a very small and select percentage of the pregnant population to becoming a routine part of every pregnancy? Why are there regional and historical differences in the acceptance, application, and history of prenatal testing? Why is it nearly impossible to have a discussion about prenatal screening that is not also a discussion about abortion?

Well, I don’t feel so lonely anymore after having read Ilana Löwy’s new book, Imperfect Pregnancies: A History of Birth Defects & Prenatal Diagnosis (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). The title pretty much tells you what the book is about, but it is more than just a recitation of discoveries and events. The author, an emerita research fellow at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, argues that prenatal testing can best be understood in the context of Michel Foucault’s concept of a dispositif – loosely speaking, the institutions, social factors, laws, regulations, scientific and professional practices that create, maintain, and reinforce a body of knowledge and give it power (no doubt some Foucault scholar will take issue with my description, but you get the general idea). But Löwy’s book is not a high falutin’ study of abstract theories of knowledge. It is concretely embedded in a richly detailed analysis – some of it original and some of it summarizing the work of others – of how we have arrived at the point where prenatal testing, particularly ultrasonography and now NIPT, has become integrated into the routine care of nearly all pregnant women in many Westernized countries.

Let me acknowledge some intellectual conflicts of interest up front: the author cites some postings to The DNA Exchange by me and others, references some of my publications, and thanks me – among many others – in her introductory section. No doubt these small ego strokes influenced my perceptions of the book in ways that I can’t fully recognize.

Imperfect Pregnancies opens with the somewhat artibitrary but reasonable starting point in the late 19th century and the work of obstetricians John Ballantyne and Adolphe Pinard, in Scotland and France respectively, on the nature and causes of birth defects and the medical supervision of pregnancy that they felt was necessary to ensure the delivery of a healthy baby. From there she ties in the history of cytogenetics and karyotyping, congenital malformations and dysmorphology, the emergence of amniocentesis and prenatal ultrasonography in the 1960s and 1970s, the introduction of serum and sonographic screening for Down syndrome in the 1980s and 1990s, and right up to the  latest testing technologies of the early 21st century such as comparative genomic arrays and noninvasive prenatal testing (NIPT).

This is not a scolding work that draws a straight historical line from eugenics to prenatal diagnosis. While eugenic criticisms are certainly valid concerns about the potential ramifications of prenatal testing and that is true that the development of prenatal diagnosis was a clear reflection of negative attitudes toward disability, the Eugenics Movement per se was not a driving historical engine behind prenatal testing. Still, Löwy makes it clear that prenatal diagnosis was established in the context of a public health model to permit and passively encourage abortion (as the introductory quote at the start of my posting suggests) of aneuploid or otherwise “defective” fetuses under the justification of allowing parents to have as healthy a baby as possible, and that was maintained by the social, ethical, medical, legal, and economic factors that made this possible (i.e., the dispositif). Pregnant women were enticed by tests that offered reassurance but some were left with the messy situation of what to do when the testing did not come back with normal results and had to make extraordinarily difficult decisions about how to proceed in largely uncharted territory, a situation genetic counselors know all too well. In the words of one researcher, women were forced “to become skilled managers of fetal risk.”

The author brings an international perspective to her narrative, including experiences with prenatal testing in the US, the UK, France, Israel, Brazil, and Scandinavia, among others. Prenatal testing is managed differently in each country according to unique local circumstances and this has an impact on uptake of testing and abortion. For example, in the Netherlands, where a detailed discussion of screening is routinely incorporated into pregnancies largely by midwives in a non-medical setting, the uptake of testing is much lower than in countries where there is less discussion and is physician driven. In Brazil, where abortion for fetal indications is limited to anencephaly, the uptake of NIPT is much greater among upper socio-economic status who have access to safe (if technically illegal) abortion compared to poorer women who do not have such ready access. Laboratory marketing has taken advantage of the social status associated with having the latest medical tests among Brazilian women, especially during pregnancy, to further integrate NIPT into routine care. In places around the world where women are likely to leave the work force and devote themselves full-time to child rearing, the uptake of prenatal testing and abortion is lower than in areas where women continue to work after childbirth.

The limitations of the early technologies are somewhat shocking from the biased perspective of today. When John Edwards analyzed the unbanded karyotype of  the first patient with his eponymous syndrome, he thought the underlying cytogenetic abnormality was trisomy 17 rather than trisomy 18 until Klaus Patau (who first described trisomy 13) set him straight. In Riis and Fuchs first reports of prenatal diagnosis of fetal sex among hemophilia carriers in Denmark in 1960, one woman proved to have a female fetus that she miscarried after amniocentesis, went on to have another female fetus that also miscarried after amniocentesis, a third pregnancy that was a male and was aborted, and finally had a fourth pregnancy in which the patient successfully carried the pregnancy to term after a female fetus was correctly identified by amniocentesis (I can envision many prenatal genetic counselors simultaneously nodding and shaking their heads right now). Of the first 20 attempts at identification of fetal sex among hemophilia carriers in Riis and Fuchs series, 17 were successful, two resulted in failure to establish fetal sex, and one female fetus was mistakenly identified as male and the pregnancy was terminated (I can hear many prenatal genetic counselors now saying “Ouch!”).

There are a few areas I think the author leaves largely under-explored. Although she gives thoughtful discussion to genetic counselors, I think she understates their importance in ushering in, shaping, and managing each new prenatal testing technology. We have been the boots on the ground as each test was introduced into clinical practice, more or less left alone with patients to negotiate the complicated medical, ethical, and psychological ramifications of “simple blood tests” and “routine sonograms” gone awry.

In the early sections of the book Löwy details the role that obstetricians played in the historical pathways leading up to prenatal testing. However, there was little mention of the obstetricians who worked closely with clinical geneticists and sometimes became board certified in genetics themselves in the 1970s and 1980s – Mickey Golbus, Larry Karp, Mike Mennuti, and Joe Leigh Simpson, to name a few.

I would also like to have seen fuller discussion of the Professional Liability Alert issued by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in May of 1985, which stated: It is now imperative that you investigate the availability of these tests in your area and familiarize yourself with the procedure, location, and mechanism of the follow-up tests to screen for neural tube defects. Although to the best of my knowledge no one has ever studied the impact of this Alert on the uptake of maternal serum screening in the US, I know that the immediate  impact in my neck of the woods was profound and long-lasting. Most of the obstetrical care providers in the Seattle area suddenly started strongly recommending AFP screening to their patients and it set the tone for the ready acceptance of most other prenatal screening tests that followed over the next 30 years. Although the book briefly mentions obstetricians’ concerns about legal liability, she does not go further down this street and I believe incorrectly attributes it to the AMA’s “concerns.”

But these latter points do not detract from the overall achievements and arguments of Imperfect Pregnancies. If you are a supporter or a critic of prenatal testing, or, like many people, decidedly ambiguous, there is much that you will learn and much that will make you pause and re-examine your own views and knowledge base.


NEWS FROM AROUND THE DNA EXCHANGESupport The Genetics Literary Community

I am delighted and excited to announce that The DNA Ex’s own Laura Hercher is now also contributing an online column for Genome magazine called GenomeCulture. Read her first installment When Genetics Race Problems Rears Its Ugly Head.

Tony Holzman, now retired from Johns Hopkins and who contributed so much valuable research on the social, ethical, and psychological aspects of genetics, is now a novelist. He has published several novels including Blame, about murder and intrigue in genetics research at the NIH. Tony is now working on publishing his newest novel, The Bethune Murals. The novel is based on the true life story of a physician who was diagnosed with TB and was confined to the Trudeau Sanitarium in the 1920s and who produced a remarkable set of murals on paper used to wrap laundry at the institution. Tony is looking to self published his book through Amazon but needs to get enough votes in an Amazon competition. If you have an Amazon account, you can vote for Tony here.

 

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The Routinization of Prenatal Testing and the Erosion of Patient Autonomy

As a long time admirer, reader and guest blogger, I am thrilled to have been invited to write as a regular contributor for the DNA Exchange.  Some recent statements about prenatal testing in the news brought to mind my very first guest post on the DNA Exchange, Information Detoxification, published 5 years ago.  So I am going to start this new chapter by going back where I began as a guest blogger, on the topic of the risks of routinizing prenatal genetic testing.

 

Last week, a genetic testing lab released a statement about their intention to use recent investments “with an eye toward making expanded carrier screening as routine as taking folic acid, noninvasive prenatal screening as routine as an ultrasound, and hereditary cancer screening as well-known as a pap smear.”  While this vision is quite positive for the lab’s investors, it is concerning for the future of reproductive autonomy. The underlying goal that all pregnant women should have prenatal testing is not unique to this lab.  In fact, there is increasing pressure towards expanding the use of these tests by many labs, likely representing the intense competition in the genetic testing business right now, driving the need to increase test uptake to the largest possible market.

 

I have mixed feelings about population screening for hereditary cancer, but the implications are completely different when considering prenatal carrier and cfDNA screening.  Although prenatal testing is important to many, it is crucial that women and their partners be given the opportunity to make autonomous and informed decisions about whether or not to take these tests.  The routinization of prenatal testing is problematic for several reasons: from a social and public policy standpoint, in regards to healthcare economics, and also for individual patient care.

 

Social and Public Policy

Advocating for reproductive autonomy and informed decisions around prenatal genetic tests was one of the first guiding principles of the genetic counseling profession.  This is in part due to the fact that the start of the master’s degree trained genetic counselor coincided with social movements in women’s reproductive rights and also the emergence of the field of bioethics.

The prioritization of patient autonomy in reproductive genetics also arose from the rejection of eugenic ideology and practices that were common in the early part of the 20th century which sought to encourage reproductive of the fittest and to discourage (sometimes forcibly) reproduction among those deemed as defective or unfit.

This history supports concerns that the routinization of prenatal testing may effectively stigmatize those who have an increased chance to have a child with a genetic condition, thereby limiting reproductive freedom.  This is especially troubling in the context of the current political and social climate with so many expressing racist, xenophobic, and ableist views, as well as increasing threats to health care security and social services.

 

Healthcare Costs

Issues regarding the cost of prenatal testing are complex and studies regarding the economic impact of expanding prenatal screening are needed.  Such data analysis is complicated by the variability and a lack of transparency in the costs of these tests.  While labs vary in their pricing, patients report receiving explanation of benefits representing that the amount billed to their insurance was many thousands of dollars –  amounts that likely exceed the entire cost of the prenatal care in some cases.  

Without peeling back all of the layers on this topic, there is one clear explanation for why routinization of prenatal testing does not make good financial sense.   Given that the purpose of prenatal genetic testing is to inform personal reproductive decisions, in order for these tests to be of value, they must first be desired by the fully informed patient.  No matter the price of a prenatal genetic test, it is a needless healthcare cost if the patient does not want it.  

 

Patient Care

Should all patients be routinely counseled about their options for prenatal genetic testing?  Absolutely.  Practice guidelines for prenatal genetic testing support offering these tests to all women in the context of counseling that supports informed and value-consistent decisions.  But this conflicts with the model that the testing labs seem to be promoting, which is to test everyone first and provide the information in follow-up, after testing has already been done.  This undermines patient autonomy and can cause harm.

 

When an individual would use results to facilitate reproductive decisions, testing can be empowering. What is often overlooked in our well-intentioned goals to provide patients with knowledge however, is the potential harm and disempowerment that may result when testing information is not desired.  Patients deserve the opportunity to make a choice about whether the information these tests provide is something they want to know or not.
It is imperative of genetic counselors to resist any suggestion that reproductive genetic testing should be routine.  I hope that all of us, whether working in the clinic or the lab, will continue to advocate for reproductive autonomy for our patients and hold firm in the goal that all patients should have the opportunity to make informed choices regarding prenatal genetic tests prior to testing.   How we move forward with this challenge in both practice and policy is a defining question for our profession.

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Supporting Our Patients and Their Right to Choose Means Opposing Graham-Cassidy

If you are a genetic counselor supporting the Graham-Cassidy proposal to replace Obamacare, you are a rare bird. Most genetic counselors – most medical professionals – most Americans for that matter – are opposed to this bill, because it compromises our ability to provide basic, essential medical care for people in need. It is not in dispute that millions of American will lose health insurance under this bill. Those with health insurance will generally pay more for less. Many of the changes remove existing protections on which our patients are particularly reliant. Here are some examples:

 

PRE-EXISTING CONDITIONS

The bill will allow states to eliminate regulations on pre-existing conditions, so that people will risk losing coverage if they change or lose their jobs. This is a disaster for individuals with chronic health problems including genetic conditions, and potentially a disaster for individuals who carry susceptibility genes. Although you might make the case that GINA should protect those individuals in theory, in practice it becomes hard to draw the line for what constitutes an existing disease in an at-risk individual. For instance, if a Lynch Syndrome carrier requires special screening and has polyps removed, are they preventing disease or symptomatic? Will a subsequent carrier argue that they already showed signs of Lynch and therefore are not covered for further screening or colon cancer? The fact is that Obamacare arrived before these questions got answered, and there is a very real risk that GINA protections will be eroded when the actual lines between pre-existing and manifest disease are drawn.

 

PRENATAL CARE

The new law allows policies to limit or even eliminate coverage for prenatal care. This logic of this abomination – the disgusting and perverse logic to be voted on by a collection of doddering old men who apparently were not of women born – is that pregnancy is not a disease but a choice, and affects only subset of women, so that others should not be asked to bear the costs. This decision abrogates the most fundamental obligation of civil society, which is to raise the next generation. You have one job, civilization. One job.

 

Every politician who argues that it is not fair to ask everyone to pay for insurance that covers prenatal care should be asked if they believe it is fair to ask women to pay for policies that cover prostate cancer care. Or who it is they believe will care for them in the nursing home, or fight for them in their wars, or protect their streets or teach their grandchildren or write their history books if not the next generation of Americans.

 

But you see here I am getting worked up, and the very righteousness of this anger masks another aspect of this change that has particular resonance for genetic counselors: limiting access to prenatal care limits access to prenatal testing, and limiting access to prenatal testing to those with more money will mean that those genetic diseases and conditions for which we can test will change the essential nature of genetic disease – no longer something that happens to everyone, it will become an affliction of vulnerable individuals. I wrote about this in a recent essay, calling it the Ghettoization of Genetic Disease, and this bill will help make that dystopian prediction a reality in the near term.

 

LIFETIME CAPS AND DISABILITY CARE

The Graham-Cassidy bill eliminates protections on lifetime caps, meaning that many individuals with chronic conditions, including genetic diseases, may end up without coverage. In addition, the cuts to Medicaid and other federally funded programs would radically reduce support for individuals with disabilities.

 

On the surface, flat out, this is heinous and cruel. Beyond that, for the genetics community, this undercuts the promise we make, by implication, to every woman or couple who decides to move forward with a pregnancy affected by or at risk for genetic disease. Supporting choice in reproductive decision-making is not a simple matter of holding someone’s hand through a difficult day. Supporting autonomous decision-making as a field means fighting for those individuals and families to be supported throughout the lifecycle.  The choice to live in a world that offers no support or resources is no choice at all for most people.

 

LET’S TAKE A STAND

It is extremely unfortunate that healthcare, a subject of mutual concern and importance to all Americans, is now held hostage to the ignorant, pettiness of slogans on signs that angry partisans wave at campaign rallies. No professional organization wants to get embroiled in party politics. On the other hand, there are times when everything you believe in is threatened and you have to take a stand. I believe this is one of those times.

 

I’m hardly alone in this. The AMA released a statement yesterday opposing Graham-Cassidy. So have many other groups representing healthcare professionals and patients, a number of them listed here in Jimmy Kimmel’s eloquent denunciation of the bill (comedians must lead when politicians are clowns, I suppose, and what else can he do when our government is beyond satire?).

 

So please, NSGC, make us proud with a statement against this terrible bill. Let’s take a stand for our values and, more importantly, for our patients.

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Is Down Syndrome Disappearing? Well, Not Exactly But….

Iceland has given the world the Eddas, Sigur Rós, Björk, and some magnificent geology.  A more ambiguous achievement, though, is suggested by a recent CBS News story that claimed that Down syndrome is disappearing from Iceland as a result of prenatal testing. The claim has been bouncing around the Internet for a few years. The earliest reference I could find was a November, 2015 letter sent to the Office of The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights authored by Downpride, an international advocacy group for people with Down syndrome. The letter is an “[a]ppeal to the United Nations to stop discriminatory use of prenatal genetic screening aimed at eradication of people with Down syndrome and other groups.” It was, in my view, an understandable and justifiable reaction to largely non-critical widespread adoption of Noninvasive Prenatal Testing (NIPT) from a community that has good reason to be concerned. Needless to say, it generated a lot of heated reaction. Just Google “Iceland Down syndrome” and you will see what I mean.

Delving into the story was like getting lost in a hall of mirrors; many sites simply referenced each other. But the claim that Down syndrome is disappearing from Iceland and that 100% of pregnancies with Down syndrome in Iceland are terminated turns out to be not quite so straight-forward. While Iceland represents a microcosm of the larger concerns of people with disabilities, their families, and their supporters, it is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the macrocosm of the larger population dynamics of Down syndrome in other countries, particularly the United States.

The ultimate source of the data, according to the Downpride letter, was testimony presented to The Althing, the Icelandic parliament that is the world’s longest existing legislative body. I tried unsuccessfully to find that testimony. I then searched PubMed but found only limited help. So I decided to do my own back-of-the-napkin calculations. I obtained the birth distribution by maternal age in Iceland for 2016, and grouped the ages by quinquennia. The expected frequency of Down syndrome was based on data from 1976, prior to the advent of widespread prenatal diagnosis.

Age Group # of Births Exp. Frequency of Down S. Exp. # of births with Down S.
15-19 72 1/1667 0
20-24 592 1/1587 0.37
25-29 1305 1/1087 1.2
30-34 1218 1/763 1.6
35-39 672 1/248 2.7
40-44 165 1/79 2
45+ 10 1/24 0.4
Total 4034  1/488 8.27

 

Thus, in Iceland in 2016, there were 4034 births. In the absence of prenatal diagnosis and selective termination, 8 or 9 babies with Down syndrome would be born, for a frequency of ~1/450-500 births. I then made the following assumptions, acknowledging that each has some potential error:

  • Based on a 2016 publication, about 80% of pregnant Icelandic women will choose to undergo prenatal screening
  • According to Dr. Hulda Hjartardóttir, chief of obstetrics at Iceland’s National University Hospital, among Icelandic woman who have a positive screen, about 25% decline diagnostic testing and continue the pregnancy. Thus, roughly 1/3 of Icelandic pregnant women either do not undergo screening to begin with or decide to continue the pregnancy and not proceed to diagnostic testing if a screening test is positive. The impact of these percentages on Down syndrome frequency depends on the age distribution of those who declined screening or diagnostic testing, but for argument’s sake, I assumed an equal distribution across maternal ages.
  • 100% of women whose pregnancies are diagnosed with Down syndrome will choose to terminate. I could not verify this claim, but I decided to go with the most extreme scenario. This has not been the experience in many countries, where termination rates have been high but not typically 100%.
  • The CBS News story mentions the Combined Screen, so I assumed this was the standard screening test in Iceland when the claims were made in The Althing. I therefore set the detection rate for Down syndrome to 90%, that is, of all women undergoing screening, about 10% of pregnancies with Down syndrome will be screen normal and would not proceed to termination (some studies suggest that the Combined Screen may have a sensitivity somewhat less than 90% but because about 21% of pregnancies in Iceland occur in women 35 and older, a higher sensitivity – and false positive – rate is expected).

Based on these assumptions and the above table, of the potential 8-9 babies born with Down syndrome, about 2-3 would actually be born because their mothers did not undergo either prenatal screening or diagnostic testing, and another baby with Down syndrome would be born because the Combined Screen would be expected to miss about one case. In other words, the total number of newborns with Down syndrome in Iceland would be expected to drop from 8-9 every year to about 3, maybe 4, per year. These numbers could increase or decrease with many factors, such as changes in fertility rates, maternal age distribution, the sensitivity of screening tests, social trends that influence the choice of abortion, and random fluctuations that occur with any demographic trend especially with the small number of births in Iceland (about that many babies were born last year in the hospital where I work in Seattle). If readers know of empirical data from Iceland to support or refute my estimates, please share it.

Of course, for advocates, every loss of a pregnancy with Down syndrome is serious, no matter how small the number. But these estimates put the concerns in some perspective. Among other things, it is fair to say that most, but not 100%, of pregnancies with Down syndrome are terminated in Iceland, and the birth prevalence of Down syndrome in Iceland is falling considerably but not likely, in my view, to disappear entirely.

I think a more realistic picture of the impact of prenatal screening on Down syndrome, in the US at least, is provided by Brian Skotko and his colleagues Frank Buckley, Jennifer Dever, and Gert de Graaf in a recent publication in the American Journal of Medical Genetics. Over the last few years, they have consistently provided some of the most reliable estimates of the demographics of Down syndrome and the effects of prenatal screening.

According to the de Graaf et al. paper, a detailed look at changes over time in the demographics of Down syndrome in 9 states, the number of people living with Down syndrome has steadily increased since 1950. The two major factors driving that growth have been longer survival due to better medical care along with the unrelenting trend of the last 35-40 years of delayed childbearing. This growth, however, has been partially offset by a loss of births with Down syndrome due to prenatal screening. The loss varies with geographic region, but overall, the prevalence of Down syndrome is roughly 70% of what it would be if prenatal screening were not available. Interestingly, the most growth in the Down syndrome population occurred among Hispanics and Native Americans. So, unlike the near elimination of Tay-Sachs disease in many Ashkenazi Jewish communities, the prevalence of Down syndrome is dropping, but not close to disappearing, at least in the US.

Other factors may affect the Down syndrome birth frequency, such as changes in maternal age distribution, availability of abortion, and access to health insurance. For example, in the highly unlikely event that every woman 35 and older refrained from pregnancy, the birth frequency of Down syndrome in the US and many Western European countries would be reduced by more than 50%. On the other hand, if abortion were to become illegal (not highly unlikely), then presumably the birth frequency of Down syndrome would increase. Limiting access to good medical care (unfortunately also not highly unlikely in the US) could lower the overall prevalence of Down syndrome because of reduced survival.

Current trends suggest that, for the immediate future, prenatal screening will continue to reduce the birth prevalence of Down syndrome. It is becoming increasingly easier for women to undergo prenatal screening and more difficult to just say no. This is due to aggressive marketing by commercial labs of “newer, better, bigger, cheaper” screening tests like NIPT; the dearth of time and resources devoted to unbiased education about Down syndrome and the pros and cons of screening tests; inequitable social distribution of medical resources and social support; and the rarity of long, difficult discussions between pregnant women/couples and their providers about whether they should even enter the prenatal screening cascade to begin with. It also does not help matters that the current US President lacks any moral decency and takes pleasure in mocking people with disabilities.

Although I am a strong supporter of women’s reproductive rights and well-informed, gut-wrenching decisions to terminate a pregnancy, it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide ethical justification for further expansion of prenatal screening, or expanded carrier screening for that matter. This is something that society needs to address but particularly genetic counselors because we are in the thick of it.

As I have previously argued, almost no research has been conducted that has tried to demonstrate whether prenatal screening can improve the medical, social, and emotional lives of people with disabilities and their families. Some women undergo prenatal screening because they think it will prepare them for raising a child with Down syndrome, but we really can’t tell them if screening does help or if it is worth their emotional and psychological investment. Carrying out such research is critical. If we can demonstrate broader benefit of prenatal screening, then we can open up a dialogue with the disability community rather than continue the shouting matches, and offer greater and more equitable justification for NIPT and other screening technologies.

Or we can continue shouting at or dismissing one another.

 

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Human Germline Editing: our crazy, scary, wonderful future is coming, but not quite yet

Publication this week of a paper by reproductive biologist Shoukrat Mitalipov and others put the subject of editing little baby humans front and center – above the fold news in the NY Times. Universally, the Mitalipov study was recognized as a milestone, and so it appears to be – a milestone on our journey to…wherever it is we are headed.

 

What did they do, and why is it important? Mitalipov improved greatly on previous efforts at germline editing, targeting embryos created using donor eggs and sperm carrying a pathogenic variant in the MYBPC3 gene associated with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Modification was successful over 70% percentage of the time, no off-target effects were detected, and only one of the 58 embryos was found to be a mosaic of altered and unaltered cells. While significant safety and efficacy concerns remain to be addressed, this work goes a long way toward validating the idea that, sooner rather than later, clinical use of this technology will be a realistic possibility.

 

The experiment raised hopes, but also some questions. CRISPR is often described as a DNA version of a search-and-replace function in a word processing program, but CRISPR itself only does search-and-remove. The ‘replace’ part leverages the cell’s own machinery for fixing breaks in DNA, and its innate penchant for tidying up any loose ends. Quick to the breach, cells can often be coaxed into using a template for the repair if one is provided along with enzymatic scissors and a guide RNA, allowing us to insert a custom DNA sequence. This bespoke DNA can be anything, but in this case it was meant to be a benign version of the MYBPC3 gene. In a surprising development, the cells preferentially ignored the synthetic template and used the unaffected version on the sister chromosome as a guide instead.

 

This had the desired effect of introducing a functioning wildtype gene, but if it is not overcome as a technical issue, will limit the range of what can be achieved via gene editing. This model doesn’t work at all with recessive disease, where there are two copies of the pathogenic variant. Additionally, it would not allow for the introduction of DNA sequences other than what is carried by a parental allele – a capability which is, I would argue, the truly unique feature of gene editing.

 

Articles about CRISPR may (and usually do) talk about its potential to prevent Mendelian diseases like Huntington’s or sickle cell, but we are already capable of preventing transmission of these diseases using IVF with PGD to identify embryos that are unaffected. Yes, as has been pointed out, this is not foolproof. A round of IVF may produce no unaffected embryos. In rare circumstances, one parent may be homozygous for an autosomal dominant disease. These are non-trivial events when they occur but they are rare and limited circumstances. For the rest, replacing one expensive and complicated technology with another is incremental progress at best, and not the reason why this story was A-1 on the NY Times website. Media interest, let no one be confused, was about the potential of CRISPR to produce what they referred to (inevitably) as designer babies.

 

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 9.27.15 PM

Antonio Regalado of the MIT Tech Review decodes media coverage of human genome editing

 

Can the technology produce designer babies? This would be an easier question to answer if designer babies were actually a thing that you could define, but they’re not. Generally, what people mean by ‘designer baby’ is one created through any use of reproductive technology to ensure specific traits, as opposed to using identical technology to avoid diseases. The problem with this is that drawing the distinction is a bit of Impressionistic painting – clear from a distance, but blurring together when you get close. A number of articles this week suggested that designer babies can’t happen because traits are not something that can be manipulated by tweaking a gene or two (here and here). This is comforting but may not hold up. It’s fair to say that you can’t tweak general intelligence – but what about, for example, executive function? And while we’re on it, would that be increasing intelligence (bad) or avoiding ADHD and other mental health problems (good)?

 

But this is leading me into rabbit holes, where we debate what is or might be or could be possible, when just now I want only to say that the potential of gene editing to add an entirely new dimension to what we can currently offer is bound tightly to its ability to introduce DNA sequences that are different from what either parent can contribute. When we are able do that, we can expand the concept of what it means to ‘choose’ a child’s genotype. We can add rare variants that confer some protection or competitive edge. We can even contemplate adding synthetic variants designed in a lab and not borrowed from natural experiments. When move past embryo selection to embryo improvement, we will have our little Gucci baby whose possible existence causes so much consternation.

 

So does this week’s blockbuster paper put us closer to that day? Yes, because the technology has moved forward a giant step. Not that technology ever moves backwards, but the speed with which it has improved is staggering, and while momentum is not going to carry it over the remaining hurdles like a hot wheels car going loop the loop, it does make it easier to assume that all technological barriers will eventually fall. But at the same time, the template surprise reminds us that every step forward reveals another twist in the road.

 

Are we almost there?  Who knows. If 2016 taught me anything, it was to stay out of the prediction game.

 

So what would a wise republic do? Coincidentally, a workgroup under the auspices of the American Society of Human Genetics published a paper yesterday in the AJHG laying out recommendations for public policy on human germline editing. The position statement was approved by ASHG, NSGC and 9 other organizations from six continents (full disclosure: I am one of the co-authors). The take home point is that modification of the human genome (egg, sperm or embryo) would be premature at this time but may be justified in the future, providing that there is a compelling medical rationale, an evidence base to support its use, ethical justification and a transparent public process to solicit and incorporate stakeholder input. In the interim, the organizations encourage governments to permit and to fund work like Mitalipov’s that investigates the potential of human germline engineering.

 

Having been a part of this group, I can attest that we thought long and hard about this aspect of the statement, and that we made it despite our concerns that this technology holds risks for both individuals and society, including the potential to increase existing inequities in health and quality of life. We may try and regulate use and norms such that we get the upside and not the downside, but we must acknowledge that to a large extent the two are inextricable.

 

Speaking only for myself, I can say that I see the allure of a form of intervention that might prevent rather than merely treat sickness and suffering, even as I sympathize with those who worry about the impact of the technology on future generations. If the choice were mine, it would be a difficult choice. But in the end, what I recognize is that we are not given a choice between going backwards and going forwards. The truth is that gene engineering is going to happen.  No one government or individual is going to stop it — the world is too big and the stakes are too large. The questions that sit in front of us are not yes or no, but where, how and under what circumstances. I believe that a thoughtful society should engage with the technology, providing capital and oversight, resources and regulation. To turn our back is to sacrifice whatever leverage we could bring to bear as we establish norms for use, and to cede our leadership role in the scientific community at the dawn of an era, the start of a journey to…wherever.

 

 

 

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Sour Grapes: A Tragicomic Dystopia Set In The Consumer Genomics Counseling Space

So-called recreational genetic testing that provides information about non-clinical traits is often dismissed as harmless. Maybe that’s so. But there is a worrisome potential to any test when technology, artificial intelligence, marketing, and medicine become increasingly intertwined with our personal lives. The mini-play below is a tragedy lurking around the edges of a comedy.

Parental Warning: Some readers may find parts of this posting to be offensive. On the other hand, one of the roles of dark humor is to shock us into ethical recognition.

Setting:  The living room of a married couple who are planning to start a family and desire genetic counseling after learning the results of their ReProfile test, a (fictitious) direct-to-consumer genomics test panel aimed at providing genetic information to prospective parents prior to conceiving a baby.

Dramatis Personae:

Jeanoma [J], a Virtual Personal Genetic Counseling Assistant

Husband [H]

Wife [W]

W: Jeanoma, On! Please pull up our ReProfile results. We received them last night and now we want to discuss them with you.

J: This conversation may be recorded for quality assurance and marketing purposes. Hello, Wife and Husband. I have your ReProfile Basic® test results right here. What are your questions and how can I best address them for you? And are you interested in the ReProfile Expanded test®? It covers more traits than the ReProfile Basic®test. I can upgrade you now, if you’d like, at our Preferred Customer discount price.

H: Jeanoma, no upgrade for now, thank you. We are planning on having children soon so we took that saliva test to have as much genetic information as possible. We want to make the most informed pregnancy plans, have healthy children, and manage our hereditary risks in a rational way that reflects our beliefs and values.

W: Jeanoma, wine is a very important part of our lives. We are dedicated red wine drinkers, as were our families. Of course, I know better than to drink it when I become pregnant. But we have wine with dinner almost every night. We belong to wine clubs. We regularly visit wineries for tastings. We have taken continuing education classes on oenology. Sommeliers sometimes ask us for recommendations. We met at a tasting for 2012 Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs. As I am sure you know, pinot noirs are particularly sensitive to soil characteristics. We think that the unique terroir of the Willamette Valley AVA produces a wine that sometimes put Burgundies to shame. So you can imagine our shock when we learned from our ReProfile test that we might be at risk of having a child who will like only white wine…….champagne for celebrations, sure, okay, we get that, but…..chardonnay, so oaked, or so… bland (Represses a tear). As we understand it, multiple genes determine wine preferences. The two of us have mostly Red Wine genes, but we each have some recessive White Wine genes and our children have a 38% chance of inheriting enough White Wine genes that they would be white wine drinkers. That risk is so high!

H: Nods in agreement, reaches for his wife’s hand. She pulls it away and turns her head to look out the window.

J: These genes code for a molecule called oenorin, a taste receptor that influences your wine preference. Different versions of these genes, called alleles, correspond to red and white wine preferences.These different alleles are named rouge and blanc. We stock an exclusive selection of  small batch release Oregon Pinot Noirs that I can have on your doorstep tomorrow, if you’d like.

H: Jeanoma, so that means that our taste preferences are determined by our genes…..Let me think about that pinot order for a bit.

J: Let me be clear – genes don’t determine our fate. There is a lot of variability in our palate profiles related to our upbringing and environment that influence the ways that our genes are expressed. It must be hard on the two of you to adapt to this new information. What are your feelings about these test results?

W: Jeanoma, we know that we could cope with any issues and problems our kids might have. I am sure that we will love them no matter what. We are not bad people. We know plenty of white wine drinkers who seem content. But why not use the latest technology to help avoid those problems?

J: It looks like this is a very important issue for your reproductive plans. Tell me more about your wine experiences with your families when you were growing up. I can also order the Family Ancestry Test® to further explore your genetic heritage. If you agree to donate your DNA to our Product Development Research Lab you receive a 10% discount.

W: Jeanoma, I felt just terrible for my older sister. We all love her to death. But she didn’t have the Red Wine genes. She was left out of family conversations at supper, stayed home during family outings to wineries. My other siblings teased her mercilessly. She would storm away from the dinner table in tears, her glass of cab untouched or secretly fed to our dogs Rosso and Barolo. She spent many nights locked in her bedroom where I know she was surreptitiously sipping an overly sweet Riesling. My parents wound up yelling at us, and eventually at one other. My mother always blamed the White Wine genes on my father’s family. She would drop the sarcasm bomb – “What does your family know about wine? They’re from North Dakota.” It tore my family apart and my parents eventually divorced. I promised myself that my own family would never be like that. That was why we took that genetic test – to help avoid a broken family. Now, I wish I never had that stupid test. It only upset me and made me anxious. And thanks but no Family Ancestry Test® for now.

H:  Jeanoma, I was an only child, so I never had a sib that I could share my wine experiences with. I wanted something different when I had my own children. I wanted to have four kids who would bond over their pleasure in red wine.

W: Four kids? You never said anything to me about wanting four kids.

H (Shrugs his shoulders): I thought you knew that I’ve always wanted a big family.

J: It sounds like you two need to have some important conversations. Have you thought about seeing a marriage counselor? I can set up an appointment if you would like. Or I can order the three best-selling marriage improvement books from our bookstore and download them on to your e-readers.

H and W (in unison): Jeanoma, uh, that kind of counseling is not for us. We can handle our own problems ourselves.

W:  Jeanoma, right now we don’t feel like reading about our problems either. We want to talk about them.

H: Jeanoma, what do you think we should do?

J: I can’t tell you what to do. Only you two know what’s best for you. But there are a couple of options that might help you. Some of these are very sensitive and you may initially think they are not for you. But you should give each one serious consideration. Challenges sometimes force us to question and change our beliefs.

Some couples in your position just do nothin, choose to roll the reproductive dice, and see what turns up. I can order a set of casino quality deluxe dice for you and have them delivered in two hours to your roof deck with our Drone Delivery System®. Other couples decide to use a genetically screened sperm or egg donor. I can arrange a contract with a donor from Eugene/Eugenia®, our proprietary donor list, if you’d like.

H: Jeanoma, you mean use another man’s sperm to get my wife pregnant or have another woman’s egg in my wife’s womb? No way! And rolling the dice is not an option. We had this testing so we would not have to leave child-making to Lady Luck.

J: Yes, it is difficult to consider, but I urge you to keep an open mind. Another option is preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD.

W:  Jeanoma, is that some kind of test tube baby or something? One of my friends did that.

J: PGD is a special type of test tube baby. You would undergo in vitro fertilization outside of the womb, using your own egg and sperm. The fertilized eggs would be tested for their wine preference profiles. Only Red Wine Profile fetuses would be implanted into your uterus. I can set up an appointment with our Accessorize Your Baby fertility clinic for later this week so you can learn more about this option.

H: Jeanoma, that sounds like it would be expensive. Is it covered by insurance?

J: It is expensive. Some insurers cover all or part of it. Other people choose to have prenatal diagnosis, like amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling, and then make a decision about whether to continue a pregnancy based on its genetic profile. Other people would not terminate the pregnancy but use that time before birth to adapt to the idea of having a differently wine-enabled child. This way when the baby is born, the parents are well prepared. But I have to advise you that these tests carry a small risk of miscarriage. Would you like to purchase miscarriage insurance? It is much cheaper if you buy it before you become pregnant.

W: Jeanoma, I might consider prenatal diagnosis. I don’t believe in terminating a pregnancy, but I might like to have the emotional preparation. That could be helpful for us, even if there is risk of losing the pregnancy from the testing. Knowledge is power. I would know not to drink red wine before breast-feeding because a White Wine Child might reject my breast milk. I could read about it on the Internet and join online support groups for parents who are attempting to raise White Wine Children or Trans-Wine Children who like both red and white wines. If it’s a girl, we could name her Rosè!

H: Jeanoma, what about this CRISPR thing I’ve read so much about on the Internet?

J: CRISPR is a technology that can alter the DNA sequences of the embryo before it is implanted, to correct any gene mutations. Think of it as a genetic nip and tuck. However, I have to warn you that this is a controversial new approach. Would you like to sign up for Jeanoma Inc.’s CRISPR Helix Adjustment Program®?

W: Jeanoma, I think it could help us solve our problem if it works. And it avoids a lot of the uncomfortable ethical issues of prenatal diagnosis. I am sure we can figure out how to pay for it, no matter what the cost. This is a priority for us. Maybe you can get that appointment set up for us.

J: I can do that. But let me first bring up something else. The ReProfile Basic results of Wife indicate that Wife is at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. What are your thoughts about that, Wife? Would you like me set up an appointment for a mastectomy? Would you like to purchase breast insurance?

W: Jeanoma, oh, that doesn’t worry me. I exercise a lot, I have a very healthy diet, I will be very good about my mammograms, and I only have one or two relatives with breast cancer and they were both smokers, so I think I am not at such a high risk. Besides, all the breast cancer is in my father’s family.  He certainly can’t give me any breast cancer genes. And I look just like my mother and there’s no cancer in her family.

J: Okay, can I do anything else for you today?

H: Jeanoma, yes, please do order that case of Oregon Pinots.

W: Jeanoma, Off!

J: Goodbye Wife. Goodbye Husband.


Thanks to Emily Singh for help with graphics

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Genetic Counseling ≠ Genetic Testing

I know that I am old and curmudgeonly. I acknowledge that my musical tastes and my concept of genetic counseling are hopelessly stuck in the 20th century. I sense in a frighteningly helpless way that my generation of genetic counselors is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the profession. It is like watching the air slowly leak out of my inflatable raft in the middle of a swift flowing river and realizing I don’t have a lifejacket. If you press me on it and buy me a few drinks, I will let slip out an admission that DNA analysis technologies like ion semiconductor sequencing and pyrosequencing are incomprehensible magic to me. I feel like I have become a visitor in my home country and I can barely speak the native tongue anymore.

So this paradox might sound like a useless warning flare fired from a sinking vessel before it goes under, a futile attempt to alert my younger upstream genetic counseling colleagues who are new to navigating these tricky waters: I love genetic testing; I hate genetic testing.

Genetic counselors and genetic testing have grown hand in hand since the early 1970s. At least in the US, one would not have flourished without the other. Amniocentesis, CVS, carrier screening, maternal serum screening, ultrasound, DNA sequencing, microarrays, and other genetic testing advances have all been ushered into medical practice by the genetic counseling profession. The tests generated a need for our unique skill sets along with the security of employment and the financial wherewithal to support our positions. Without genetic testing, we wouldn’t be where we are today. So what’s to complain about, even for a complainer like me?

Well, I have two related complaints. My first complaint is the ever-expanding list of genetic tests that we feel obliged to offer our patients in prenatal, oncology, and other settings. Don’t get me wrong – I think genetic testing can be incredibly valuable from both a medical and a psychological perspective. But I wind up spending way too much valuable counseling time highlighting the differences between Panel A and Panel B and the relative merits of this lab versus that lab. And, oh, by the way, many of the genes included on these panels are largely irrelevant to your particular clinical concerns. I hear similar plaints from some of my colleagues in prenatal – this carrier test for 75 conditions or that one for 200 conditions, or this prenatal screen versus that prenatal screen.

It is often not clear to me why some of these tests are part of clinical practice to begin with. Probably a variety of forces are behind it – the push from labs to offer more tests and to compete with other labs; the common trait of genetic counselors to be early adopters of new technologies; trying to show that we are at the cutting edge of genetics; our obsession with offering ALL options to ALL comers; demands from patients and referring physicians; worry that if we don’t offer the shiniest, newest products our patient population will go shopping at the next medical center down the road, or Heaven forbid, shop online; and a nagging fear of being sued or at the very least of providing sub-standard care. As I have written about previously, sometimes genetic tests became standard of care before they were thoroughly vetted, evaluated, and debated.

Which leads me to my second complaint. There is a tendency, sometimes overtly and sometimes silently, to conflate genetic testing and genetic counseling. Yeah, sure, genetic testing is an important part of what many of us do, but my job title says counselor, not tester. For some genetic counselors, testing is not even part of their job. We educate, provide clinical expertise to other care providers, and participate in research. There are other services we provide to our patients, not the least of which should be an intense psychological, personal, and occasionally angst-filled exploration of why patients might even want testing to begin with, never mind which test they want. We are there to support and work with them when no testing was done, when testing is irrelevant, or when testing was done in the past and we are helping them adapt to their new medical and emotional status. Let’s look at what your worries and fears are, and why you are in my office to begin with. What has it meant for your life that you or your child or your sister have this condition? What resources do you need? How have your loved ones been supportive or not of you? What are your health care and life goals? Or bigger picture questions such as what are the medical, economic, and social impacts of genetic disease?

At times I think that genetic counseling for psychiatric conditions is the last pure form of genetic counseling – reliable genetic testing is not available for most psychiatric conditions, so you are “forced” to rely on your counseling and clinical skills. Okay, so perhaps I exaggerate a bit, but you catch my drift. I remember my long time colleague Vickie Venne once saying to me that cancer genetic counseling became a lot less interesting to her once BRCA testing became available. While not denying the many benefits of BRCA testing and how it has helped save lives, there is a measure of wisdom in Vickie’s statement.

As a profession, we should extol and support our role in ordering and interpreting genetic testing. But we, or at least I, don’t want testing to be our defining activity. Yes, as one of our skill sets, we are pretty damn good at it. But let’s not forget that it is a counseling session, not an Informed Consent session or a sales pitch. We should boast more about our abilities to help patients make sense of genetic disease for their lives in a psychologically meaningful way, and testing is only one means of achieving this goal. Genetic counselors are not Genetic Testers; Genetic Counseling is not Genetic Testing.

 

 

 

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