When Perfection Causes Imperfection: A Potential Non-Genomic Complication Of Germline Editing

There is wide consensus that we should not only treat but also try to cure genetic conditions that cause profound suffering. CRISPR and related technologies have descended on us like a deus ex machina from the heavens and made it possible to “cure” genetic diseases through germline editing. Precision molecular microsurgery has stimulated provocative discussions about which diseases are serious, where we draw the line, the acceptance of people who are different in appearance and abilities, increasing the disparities between wealthy and poor, religious concerns, etc. I don’t have any helpful insights into these issues but I hope that vigorous debate continues and that if germline editing becomes a reality, we proceed veeerrrrrryyyyy slowly, cautiously, and incrementally.

The more ardent “germline utopians” envision a world where all fertilized embryos undergo germline editing to prevent the resulting offspring from developing genetic disorders. Of course, this will never happen universally. Even in a fantasy world of full acceptance of, and unrestricted access to, germline editing, pregnancies have a habit of, well, happening on their own. But for argument’s sake, let’s make the unlikely assumption that many parents will utilize germline editing to prevent their children from developing genetic conditions. Given that Western societies place great value on individual autonomy and considering the conditions that are currently screened for through prenatal diagnosis and carrier screening, it is likely that prospective parents would choose to “correct” traits ranging in severity from hearing loss to profound physical and developmental disorders, and all points in between. And to twist the complexity we might see the reverse scenario where deaf parents choose to “correct” a hearing-abled embryo. Should genetic enhancement – adding a few IQ points, tacking on centimeters of height, a slimmer habitus, Faye Dunaway zygomatics – become a reality then a goodly number of parents will take advantage of that as well (please I hope never because it will bring out the worst in us).

Of course, this model of genetic disease prevention depends on whether the technique actually works and that it is safe. There is reason to believe that germline editing and “correction” of genetic conditions are technically achievable. Safety, however, is more open to question. Off-target genetic effects, among other safety issues, could relegate germline editing to the What If category of debate.

But let’s posit a world where efficacy is proven and off-target effects are negligible. There would still be another safety issue, unrelated to genomics. Germline microsurgery requires in vitro fertilization/intracyoplasmic sperm injection (IVF/ICSI) in order to gain access to the gamete or the fertilized egg and to achieve a pregnancy. And therein lies the rub – IVF/ICSI is associated with a higher risk of complications in singleton and multiple gestations, such as prematurity, low birthweight, small for gestational age, perinatal mortality, and congenital anomalies. It reminds me of the introduction of a phenylalanine-restricted diet to reduce the impact of PKU that eventually created the phenomenon of maternal PKU, in which maternal hyperphenylalaninemia produced babies with microcephaly, heart defects, and intellectual disabilities. The attempt to cure one problem can create a whole new set of problems.

Now maybe the complications of IVF/ICSI are in part due to the underlying causes of the parental infertility, and thus fertile couples may have lower complication rates. Maybe. Perhaps IVF/ICSI will become safer. Perhaps. Still, it is likely that some parents will be willing to accept the risks of pregnancy complications in return for not having a child with Tay-Sachs disease or severe ichthyosis. But are the pregnancy risks worth it to prevent genetic hearing loss, increase a child’s IQ, or create a child with movie star beauty?

You might understandably say “My God, we finally have the chance to prevent serious genetic problems and improve people’s lives. How can we not take advantage of it? We are just trying to do good in a world full of suffering.” Indeed, the goal of reducing suffering is as old as the field of Medical Genetics. But when we march beneath the banners of Cure, Good Intentions, and Highly Ethical Motivations, and throw in an unhealthy dose of hubris, our enthusiasm may blind us to the harm that we might do. Perfection comes with a price.

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Work Shift: A (Wrong?) Prediction

Genetic counselors are engaging in a bit of preening now that CareerCast has listed our profession as the top-rated career for 2018. Actually, it’s a bit of history repeating itself. Back in 1980, the genetics equivalent of The Neolithic, I learned about the profession when I came across an article in Working Woman magazine (now defunct, and not to be confused with Working Women magazine, which is still in circulation) touting the top 10 careers for the modern woman of the 1980s. My other time-killing choices that day were People, Reader’s Digest, and Ranger Rick. If I had picked up a different magazine, well, just imagine Ranger Robert. Funny how our lives play out.  Incidentally, even today, National Society of Genetic Counselor (NSGC) membership is 95% female, so that article in Working Woman really had its finger on the socioeconomic pulse.

Ranger Robert. Graphics by Emily Singh

 

The CareerCast story appeared just a few weeks after the publication of the latest Professional Status Survey (PSS) by the NSGC. The two pieces got me to thinking about historical changes in the employment picture of the profession and eventually, perhaps after a beer or two, a prediction popped into my head about a trending shift in who employs genetic counselors. I am not the first to notice the trend, so my contribution is to suggest the extreme to which the trend will run as well as its implications.

My prediction is that within the next 5-10 years, a significant majority of US genetic counselors will be employed  by laboratories and other biotech firms, in both patient contact and non-contact roles, and, to a lesser extent, by private practice groups that offer their services over the Internet or whatever communication technology is predominant in 2025. Until about a decade or so ago, the vast majority of genetic counselors were employed by private and academic medical centers. This is still true; if I am interpreting the 2018 PSS correctly, about 2/3 of genetic counselors are employed by medical centers, public hospitals, HMOs, private hospitals, and physician private practices. However, there were also changes in the percentage employed by laboratories and biotechs. In 2010, 10.5% of genetic counselors were employed by labs and biotechs. By 2018, that percentage more than doubled to 22.5%, and another 2% of genetic counselor were employed by telegenetics companies in 2018 (the 2010 PSS did not have an equivalent category). In other words, about a quarter of the current genetic counseling workforce is employed by labs, biotechs, and telegenetics companies.

There are several factors driving this trend. First off, more laboratories are offering direct genetic counseling services to patients and thus need to hire more counselors  – Counsyl and its new owner Myriad Genetics, Color Genomics, LabCorp, and Invitae, to name a few. Second, salaries of laboratory genetic counselors are typically a good 20% higher (plus more to be made in bonuses and stock options) than those offered by medical centers, making labs more enticing to prospective employees. Third, more medical centers and large medical practices are looking to include genetic counseling among the services they provide to their patients. Since genetic counselors don’t typically generate enough income to pay their costs, medical centers may be relieved to have a laboratory provide genetic counseling to their patients, either on site or via telegenetics. Clinics would bear minimal costs and labs would get a pipeline for specimens. This in turn will create a competitive environment among labs to offer their genetic counseling services to more clinics to ensure they maintain reasonable share of the testing market. A lesser trend will be the growth of telegenetic services offered by dedicated telegenetic counseling companies and individual private practitioners (together, currently 2.2% of genetic counselors). I suspect this latter group will be limited in its employment share, in part because they will have a hard time competing with the deeper pockets of large corporations. The net effect will be that the percentage of genetic counselors employed by medical centers will decrease significantly.

A natural extension of this trend is that bigger labs will continue to swallow smaller labs, and mega-corporations will swallow the bigger labs. Its hard to fight economy of scale. Konica Minolta owns Ambry Genetics. Eventually BGI may get in on the act (then watch out!). Heck, it’s not out of the question that many genetic counselors could one day work for Amazon (see my posting Sour Grapes, a dystopian satire about this possibility).

Both good and bad will emerge from these trends. More patients will have access to genetic counseling through telegenetics, whether from labs or dedicated genetic counseling companies. With genetic counselors on staff, labs and medical centers can be confident that testing is ordered and interpreted appropriately, improving patient care and reducing economic waste. More career opportunities will open up for genetic counselors as corporations recognize their skills and smarts. Salaries and other benefits will likely become more generous.

There is plenty to worry about too, at least for professional fretters like me. With more mergers and acquisitions, there will be fewer employers of genetic counselors and so the field will lose some of its practice diversity. Employers will expect their employees to adhere to certain business practices and philosophies unique to each employer. Practice diversity has been a rich source and testing ground for new and different ways to conduct genetic counseling. More concerning to me is the potential loss of  carefully considered patient decisions about whether to undergo a genetic test. Acquisitions and mergers are driven by the desire to increase market share and market penetration, not by an altruistic urge to ensure that patients carefully consider the benefits, downsides, and psychological impact of genetic testing (although undoubtedly labs support the right of each patient to make independent decisions). This will become even more concerning  as labs are subsumed by larger corporate entities that are further removed from the practice of medicine and the ethos of genetic counselors, generating real concerns about conflicts of interest. Another possibility is that large labs will either set up or help finance genetic counseling training programs. Why not have a steady source of prospective employees who can be trained to develop skills and a counseling approach that are shaped to a particular corporate milieu?

I acknowledge that this is a very America-centric view of the genetic counseling profession. This trend may not play out to the same degree, or at all, in other countries. On the other hand, telegenetics knows no borders. Conseil Gènètique Sans Frontières. Governments are looking for ways to cut health care spending in the UK, Canada, and Australia, among others. International mega-corporations – Big Genoma – can offer enticing cost-savings to legislators looking to reduce expenses without increasing taxes.

Of course, like most prophets and self-appointed pundits, my predictions will be off, and perhaps even laughably so. The thing about the future is that nobody knows what it’s going to be like. So if you disagree with me, or are outraged by my thoughts, take solace in knowing that I will likely be wrong yet again. But I think there is enough meat on this bone that it’s worth chewing over.

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DTC: Direct to Children?

Last week Phil Rogers, of Chicago NBC News reported that he submitted a DNA sample from his dog, Baily, to the laboratory, Orig3n for analysis. This made headlines because a test report was issued on his dog for a test that was designed and marketed for humans. In follow-up to the story, Orig3n spokesperson, Karmen Conrad stated that, “…since October Orig3n has acquired a CLIA Certified laboratory and upon hearing about this issue has implemented controls to assure that nefarious samples such as this are rejected from further processing. We are sorry there was an error in reporting this one particular sample.”

I know firsthand that Phil’s experience was not an isolated case.* Last December, I submitted my dog Ginger’s DNA swab for the “Bloom Child Development” test, also by Orig3n, and I also received a completed test report. According to Orig3n’s website, “the Child Development DNA Test is a gene profile that will start you and your child on the path to lifelong discovery. From fitness to natural abilities for language and learning, the results help you get to know your child even better.”

Nothing was flagged as out of the ordinary with Ginger’s DNA. From the looks of her genetic test report, Ginger appears to be a pretty average kid in terms of her intellectual and athletic potential.

samginger

* Pictured on the left is Ginger. As you can see from the grey temples of my canine child, Ginger is safely over the requisite 13 years of age.  On the right is my colleague’s dog, Sam, who also submitted a sample to Orig3n for the “Superhero” test. Sam also received a complete test report. According to Orig3n, Sam is likely to be good at endurance activities such as triathlons. 

 

Genetic testing from the kitchen sink

This brings me to the second part of my experiment which proved to be much more troubling. It seemed plausible to me, given the homology between human and canine genetics, that the lab could have obtained results for at least some of the SNPs on their panel with Ginger’s sample. So, I decided to try the Bloom Childhood Development kit again, but this time I sent a blank. Using gloved hands, I carefully removed the swap from the sterile envelope and quickly ran it under the tap water of my kitchen sink, packaged it, and mailed it to the lab. In less than two weeks, I received a report for my imaginary tap water child. Like Ginger’s report, the results for the water sample was a 35-page report that varied at six of the 24 SNPs from Ginger’s results. But a much more disheartening difference between Ginger’s result and the water sample was that the report on the water sample was signed out by a DNA Laboratory Director, PhD Geneticist and fellow of a major American genetics organization.  

This is worth repeating – a  boarded geneticist signed out a report on a genetic test promising to predict the athletic and learning abilities of a child, from a sample of tap water.

Of the many tests offerings available through Orig3n, I chose the Bloom test in particular because I am deeply concerned that this test encourages parents to send in DNA samples from their children. I sent away for this test because I wanted to see for myself if there was a consent form or written information included with the test kit beyond what I could find online to caution consumers about the potential risks and limitations of this testing. Not surprisingly, there was nothing of the sort. Just instructions on how to obtain the sample and a simple postcard asking for a name, email and phone number.

 

Children are a target market for these tests

To me, the most disturbing part of the story is not doggie DNA but rather that children are the target for this and others tests like it, thereby compromising individual autonomy and privacy of genetic information. Regulatory gaps allow labs to boast of their CLIA Certification, which should provide some assurance of analytical validity, but may only serve to give an illusion of credibility. There are serious ethical concerns with this shift in “personal genomics” and allowing these unethical practices to go unchecked risks undermining the legitimacy of medical genetics.

Through social media, Amazon.com, and promotional events, companies are targeting parents of young children. Even Readers Digest gave the Bloom test a plug.  This company encourages people to submit their children’s saliva sample to gain information about their health, “enlightenment” and fitness information. While their Terms of Service and Privacy Policy say the testing is not directed at kids under 13 years of age, the child pictured on the test kit box appears to be years away from double digits. The Orig3n twitter feed is full of cute pictures of preschool age children. And this Instagram post on the Orig3n sight with a mom blogger  proudly swabbing her infant and toddler’s cheeks raised my genetic counselor anxiety through the roof.

Since genetic testing first became possible, the medical community has carefully deliberated the ethical ramifications of genetic testing in children and has recommended caution about how and for whom these tests should be used. Generally, it is held that a child’s autonomy and privacy should be protected when it comes to their genetic information. Unless the results could change medical management towards a better health outcome for the child, genetic testing of children is considered ill-advised. One can imagine the unintended consequences that may result from the use of these tests. It is not unfathomable that parents with great faith in the “science” of this technology may use results to determine how to allocate attention and resources in the family, investing more in one child or another based on the genetic results that may inaccurately suggest differences in intellectual or athletic promise among siblings. I believe that parents that are using these tests genuinely want all of the best for their children. They are seeking out these tests with the goal to give their kids the best possible advantage for their gifts and talents.

That being said, it is very difficult for me to imagine how such information could be beneficial to families and very easy for me to imagine the harms of growing up in a family guided by the results from a DTC test.

And what about privacy? It feels incredibly wrong to me that through no decision of their own, the DNA samples of many children are now in the hands of corporations to be bought and sold. We can only begin to imagine the possible unintended ramifications of this for the future, but only need to look as far as the recent Facebook news to get some ideas of what may be possible.

And while Orig3n may be the laboratory that is most direct in targeting children, it is not the only lab allowing for casual genetic testing of minors. Many people are sending in their kid’s samples to labs such as 23andMe, and in some cases inputting the raw data into 3rd party applications that provide an output of information related to possible mutations in genes for adult onset disorders such as cancer susceptibility.  Many of these results are false positives, but that is a story for another day.

Now genetic counselors are seeing patients for consultation on raw data of DTC tests that indicate the presence of mutations associated with Lynch syndrome and other genetic cancer susceptibility in young children. Historically, genetic counselors have taken great care in working with families to convey the potential implications of testing of children for adult onset conditions. Now, thanks to DTC testing, children everywhere are being tested for any number of genetic conditions, without counseling and without consent.

 

Gaps in regulation allow opportunistic genetic testing labs to operate and risk delegitimizing the field as a whole

This is not the first time that Orig3n has been in the news. Many may remember the planned “DNA Day” to be held at the Baltimore Raven’s game in 2017.  Maryland shut this event down due to regulatory concerns, one of which was the fact that Orig3n was not CLIA Certified.  The company remedied this problem late last year through their acquisition of Interleukin Genetics, a CLIA Certified laboratory that is now apparently the site where Orig3n processes their DNA samples.  Many DTC labs tout their CLIA certified lab as a symbol of quality. It is one measure, but CMS’s oversight of labs under CLIA is quite limited. And from the tap water experiment, I am not so confident that CLIA certification provides much assurance of analytical validity.

The lines between clinical and nonclinical labs are increasingly blurred. With lack of transparency in lab practices and enormous gaps in regulation, the ability to confidently assess lab quality is becoming impossibly difficult, even for genetics professionals. It is our responsibility, as part of the medical genetics community, to take a close and critical look at how genetic testing is developing, to shine a light on unethical practices, and push for regulatory standards that will better ensure integrity in the field of genetics. Our patients deserve nothing less.

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Is Test Uptake A Good Measure of Genetic Counseling Effectiveness? I Don’t Think So

The last few years have seen a growing trend for patients to undergo genetic testing without first seeing a genetic counselor or other genetic specialist. As I have commented before, genetic counselors are no longer the gatekeepers of genetic testing. Anyone can obtain DNA analysis through non-genetics specialists or any health care provider, on Amazon.com and other internet sites, and at their workplaces (which, honestly, makes me very uneasy; it is going to be awfully difficult for some employers to keep their noses out of their employees’ genetic information and it may provide an opportunity to chisel away at the protections afforded by GINA). Many genetic counselors have accepted this as a fact of life, even if we are not altogether comfortable with it.

Historically, the genetic counseling profession has done a poor job of demonstrating its value to the health care system. Our importance seemed pretty obvious to us and because we didn’t have much in the way of competition we were never strongly motivated to undertake large scale studies to prove our worth.

Comparative studies are starting to address the value of pre-test counseling by a genetic counselor, particularly in the field of hereditary cancer genetic testing. This as a good thing.  Still, it bothers me if studies claim that genetic counseling is failing patients because fewer people undergo genetic testing if they need to see a genetic counselor first. Sure, genetic testing should be readily available to those who need it, and barriers need to be removed. If seeing a genetic counselor turns out to be one of those barriers, then we need to do something about that. But test uptake may not always be in the best interests of patients.

For example, the most common reason an unaffected patient declines genetic testing after seeing me for hereditary cancer counseling is that, for the moment, they are the “wrong” person to test to most accurately determine their hereditary cancer risks. Even though the patient may technically meet standard criteria for genetic testing, they may still not be the best person to test within the context of their specific family history. Not undergoing genetic testing is not due to a lack of timely access to me, the cost of my services, or me somehow talking them out of testing. Instead, after reviewing their family history, it turns out that testing their mother with breast cancer or their brother with colon cancer is the most appropriate person to test before deciding if the patient and other unaffected relatives should undergo testing. If that affected relative has a normal genetic test result, then testing my patient and other relatives is usually a waste of money.

It is also difficult to interpret a negative test result in a family where a mutation has not already been identified. Now, I am a grizzled veteran of the Family Dynamics Wars, and I realize that sometimes that affected relative is deceased or just not willing to undergo testing, and you have to make do with the realities of the situation at hand. And, of course, this argument does not apply to testing patients who have been diagnosed with cancer (although it may apply in situations where patients meet NCCN guidelines but not their insurer’s criteria for coverage, but an affected relative does meet their insurer’s criteria). Still, testing an affected relative should be utilized whenever feasible because it is clinically and economically the most effective strategy. Therefore, if a study finds that test uptake is increased when patients do not first see a genetic counselor, the researchers are obliged to demonstrate that this is not simply due to more cases of the “wrong” person being tested or the providers not willing to take the time to work with the extended family.

Along these same lines, in many situations, even genetic test results of an affected relative are often uninformative for risk assessment. Such families may still need to be followed as high risk, with screening and risk reducing protocols based on family history and clinician judgment. Effectiveness studies therefore need to investigate whether there are differences in clinical recommendations provided to patients who see a genetic counselor compared to those who do not.

Studies of genetic counseling vs. no genetic counseling also need to provide data on patient adherence to screening and other risk reduction guidelines. Increased test uptake is not particularly helpful if patients do not have the motivation or wherewithal to undergo breast MRI, salpingo-oophorectomy, join the Annual Colonoscopy For Life Club, or whatever else is recommended. Other outcomes that effectiveness studies should address include communication of test results to family members, interpretation of variants of uncertain significance, and patients’ psychological adaptation to their risk status. I imagine many of you reading this posting can suggest additional outcomes that need to be addressed.

My other concern about reduced genetic counselor involvement with pre-test counseling is that “counseling” will eventually be reduced to a pamphlet or a brief video, perhaps provided by the testing lab itself. This is already a major concern with how NIPT is presented to pregnant women, and I can see it becoming a problem in other areas of genetic testing. No matter how earnestly labs may claim that their educational material is not a subtle sales pitch, they are only human and can easily be blinded by their business needs. This is an area where GCs can develop better and less biased educational materials.

If research demonstrates that other genetic testing delivery models are more effective than, or at least non-inferior to (non-inferior sounds like a back-handed compliment,doesn’t it?), the traditional approach of First See A GC Before Your Test, then the genetic counseling profession should re-focus itself and use our many other skills to work towards improving patients’ lives and the medical care system. Besides, I have never liked conflating genetic counseling with genetic testing.

I do worry, though, that either the research will not be conducted, or that, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, market forces will dictate testing strategies. I am not concerned that it would portend the end of the genetic counseling profession. Genetic counselors are forever expanding their professional roles, and in fact have continually reinvented themselves since, well, we first invented ourselves in the 1970s. Like David Bowie, we never stood still and as soon as you had us pinned down as Ziggy Stardust, all of a sudden we were Aladdin Sane, and already sprouting within him are the seeds of The Thin White Duke (well, okay, it’s a stretch comparing genetic counselors to David Bowie, but you get my point). What matters is that all patients affected with or at risk for hereditary disorders receive the most competent and compassionate care delivered effectively, equitably, and timely.

Bobbin Sane
(Graphic by Emily Singh)

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The Hidden Costs of “Free” Genetic Counseling

A Guest Post by Eleanor Griffith, MS, CGC

Eleanor is the founder of Grey Genetics, a telehealth genetic counseling and consulting company.  Find Eleanor on twitter @elo81.

 

A lot of genetic testing companies are now offering genetic counseling along with genetic testing. That’s great, right? Great to see genetic testing companies hiring genetic counselors. Great for patients because it expands access to genetic counseling services to patients who wouldn’t otherwise receive genetic counseling.

Or actually, maybe not so great. Concerns related to conflicts of interest have been discussed on the DNA Exchange and elsewhere and are worth discussing further and at length. For starters, see here, here, and here.

But my gripe is that when a lab offers “free” genetic counselingit’s not really free. The cost is just hidden, bundled into the cost of the test. Hiding the true cost of genetic counseling in turn diminishes the perceived value of genetic counseling services.

Genetic counselors providing “free” genetic counseling get paid for their work. And they should. But the amount that it actually costs to provide genetic counseling vs. the amount that it costs to run a genetic test is not transparent—not to the patient, not to the physician, and not to the insurance company—which may or may not cover “genetic counseling.” Or may or may not realize that they do, in fact, cover the cost of some sort of genetic counseling(-ish) services by covering the cost of the test.

From a business perspective, for genetic testing labs, “free genetic counseling” is a no-brainer. It’s a big selling point and increases the odds that a healthcare provider will keep sending tests to the laboratory that is able to meet the very real counseling needs of their practice. As long as laws and regulations allow it, I don’t see this changing.

If the recognized product is the genetic test, and the main (or only) source of revenue for genetic testing labs is insurance reimbursement or out-of-pocket payments from patients, then the salaries of genetic counselors working for genetic testing laboratories are basically being paid by insurers + patients. If you follow my logic, this means that insurers will cover and patients do in fact pay for the (hidden) cost of lab-based genetic counseling, bundled into the cost of genetic testing. But insurers often don’t cover the cost of independent genetic counseling. Conflict of interest aside, this strikes me as ridiculous.

Away from the morass of insurance, patients and consumers of healthcare are being trained to see price tags attached to direct-to-consumer genetic testing products of dubious value, while genetic counseling is “free with purchase!” Even for clinical genetic tests ordered through physicians, self-pay prices are becoming more accessible. The logic, of course, is that labs will have a high enough volume of tests to scale and still make as much or more of a profit from testing…. Genetic counseling, however, cannot scale in the same way. This is why widgets get cheaper and cheaper while the cost of most professional services that require advanced degrees and involve working with clients one-on-one—lawyers, doctors, psychologists, financial consultants—remains relatively high.

While building up my private practice, I work part-time for an agency offering “free” genetic counseling to patients who respond to a quiz on facebook. I love it and I hate it.

I love it because I speak with high-risk patients who have never been referred to genetic counseling in a traditional way—many of whom have never heard of the BRCA genes. Patients who are interested in going forward with testing receive a copy of my consult note (yep, and a test kit) to take to their healthcare provider. Those who decline testing still receive a consult note with a copy of their family history and are encouraged to share it with their healthcare provider. Their healthcare provider has the option of including my name on the test requisition form so that I can receive and review results with their patient. Initially, I’m scheduled for an hour with each patient. If the patient needs more time to gather family history or to speak with someone in the family who would be a more appropriate candidate for testing—no problem, I just schedule her for a second call. I’m connecting with patients who would otherwise never have known of the option of genetic testing, would never have guessed that their insurance would cover the cost of testing for them, and had no idea of the impact it could have on their medical management and the value it could provide to their family members.

I hate it because the agency of course has a relationship with a specific laboratory. That laboratory happens to be the laboratory that I would recommend above others for hereditary cancer testing. This makes me feel good about the quality of testing that patients actually end up having—but also means that my professed recommendation should be looked upon with skepticism. Although the modest amount I’m paid is not affected by whether or not a patient goes ahead with genetic testing, and although I’m not privy to the details of the arrangement  between the agency I work for and the genetic testing laboratory—in reality, I’m obviously still being indirectly paid by the commercial testing laboratory. I’m just part of their operating costs.

I address patients’ questions about the costs of genetic testing, the likelihood that it will be covered by insurance. But there’s never a question as to how I’m getting paid, or why I’m getting paid. There’s no price tag assigned to the 30-90 minutes I spend talking with them. Sometimes patients are in a quiet place for our phone conversations. Sometimes they’re washing dishes, driving a car, picking kids up from school. After all, it’s a free call related to an impulse click on facebook. I have a Master’s Degree in Human Genetics, but my time costs them…. absolutely nothing. Or rather, the cost of my time is bundled into the cost of the agency’s services which is in turn paid by the laboratory which is in turn paid by insurers, which is in turn paid by my patients’ insurance premiums and/or taxes.

I feel less icky about this set-up than I had expected. (See the love paragraph.) Conflict of interest aside, however, this is a nasty bandage on a broken system in which the cost of genetic counseling is bundled along with the cost of testing rather than being recognized and billed for as a service provided by specialized medical professionals.

As uncomfortable as I feel getting indirectly paid by a laboratory, I feel equally but differently uncomfortable with charging patients for genetic counseling—which is exactly what I’m doing in private practice. The first patient who paid upfront and told me how valuable my time had been to her and how appreciative she was made it easier. But I still feel awkward asking patients to pay me. Most of us who have worked in hospitals have been similarly used to having the cost of our services swept up into other hospital costs and have not had to tell patients, “It will cost $X to see me.”

I think our time and services are worth $$$. Whether we work in industry, private practice, or for a hospital, I think we need to learn to be unapologetic about the fact that even if we love and find meaning in our jobs, we also work to make a living. The value of genetic counseling services should be accurately reflected in an associated cost. We’ve come a very short way from being a collection of mostly white, upper-middle class housewives who are happy to do volunteer work and don’t need to make an income. We need to take another step and get comfortable with transparently charging for the work we do.

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Medical Strategy or Marketing Strategy?

A well-known direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing company now has FDA approval to include a very limited form of BRCA testing with its DNA genotyping product. I refrain from mentioning the company’s name because they already got enough free press from the announcement. You probably know what company I am referring to, and if you don’t, well, follow the above link. Sorry Unnamed Company, but I am not going to make the free advertising that easy for you, no matter how insignificant the source. Besides, I see it as a bigger issue than just one company’s policy.

For now, the analysis is limited to the three BRCA1&2 mutations that are more common among Ashkenazi Jews. Actually, the company offered the same 3 mutation test until they were slapped with a cease and desist letter from FDA in 2013 to stop all medically related testing. So this new announcement amounts to a resurrection of a nearly decade-old policy, not a groundbreaking innovation. Funny, though, that there was not this much to-do when the test was first offered.

The genetic counseling community is in a bit of a dither about this, including me, though admittedly part of the reason I am writing this blogpost is to help me figure out just what I am dithering about.

Some of the concerns are obvious. People may be under the misconception that a negative result = no increased risk of hereditary breast/ovarian cancer and thus some high risk women may forego potentially lifesaving surgery and appropriate screening strategies. Then there is the worry that patients will not follow through with genetic counseling if the testing is positive, or that high risk patients will not seek genetic counseling and more testing if the result is negative. If you are not Ashkenazi Jewish, the test does not seem to offer much benefit. And even for Ashkenazi Jews, the testing does not include the ~10 other genes linked to hereditary breast cancer and the ~10 other genes linked to hereditary ovarian cancer.

The company recommends verifying positive results with an experienced clinical lab.  For that matter, then, why not verify a negative result, if there is that much uncertainty? Why bother having a test if you can’t fully trust the result? I suspect though that there is probably little reason to doubt the test result and that the company makes this recommendation to keep FDA happy and to minimize their legal exposure rather than concerns about assay validity.

Incidentally, the cost of the company’s product is really not much different than the more comprehensive multigene hereditary cancer panels offered by some of the clinical testing labs, and in some cases more expensive.

Eight years ago I shared my first experience with a patient whose BRCA carrier status was detected through DTC testing. My patient’s experience and a few more cases I encountered since then have not been that different than my patients who went through the usual counseling and testing process. A 2013 study by the company  showed that the 11 women and 14 men who discovered their BRCA status through DTC testing had experiences similar to my patients. That last statement is brimming with caveats – small sample size, at least for my patients they were savvy enough to want to see a genetic counselor, personality traits of the earliest users of new products, no long-term follow-up, etc. But I am not aware of any independent, large-scale studies of patients who learned their BRCA status through DTC testing to more definitively address the pros and cons, other than studies offering BRCA testing that targeted all Ashkenazi Jewish women.

I readily admit that I may be proven wrong, but I am guessing that most of the consumers of this DTC product – note they are not patients because the test is not intended for clinical use – will opt to learn their BRCA status. After all, people have this testing to learn about their genetic makeup. I am also guessing that this may be the company’s proverbial toe-in-the-water; I would not be at all surprised if additional clinically useful testing is part of the company’s future product and marketing plans.

At heart, I don’t like the idea of DTC BRCA testing. I think about all the ways it can go wrong, and inevitably some of those ways will come to pass. But will it go right often enough, and go wrong infrequently enough, that there will be adequate benefit to justify offering DTC testing? Undoubtedly, some of my uneasiness stems from a professional conflict of interest; DTC eliminates my role as an interface between patients and testing. Personally, I think being a middleman is a good thing because it can help patients take a thoughtful deep breath before leaping into the gene pool. But that could be because I have been trained to think that way and because it supports the value of my professional career. What I really should want is for patients to have access to genetic information in a manner that is affordable, accurate, psychologically and emotionally appropriate, and medically useful. If DTC and other forms of offering BRCA testing works for many men and women, then I should swallow my professional pride and acknowledge it.

So having stewed on this for a while, I have come to the realization that my argument isn’t with this company per se. Other companies aggressively market hereditary cancer and other genetic testing to average risk people. For example, one company approached my institution with the idea of offering their product to all women coming in for breast imaging, with saliva kits kept in the mammography center along with a prescription pad with a genetic counselor’s name on it acting as an ordering provider for the test (legal in my state). Although many labs employ genetic counselors who work directly with patients to review test results, this is still not the same experience as meeting with a genetic counselor before undergoing testing to explore the complex medical and psychological issues surrounding genetic testing. And the highly respected Dr. Mary-Claire King has advocated for population based genetic screening for establishing hereditary breast cancer risk. Are DTC clinical testing and other consumer-friendly strategies disruptive ideas that will bring about much-needed change or are they just bad but well-intentioned ideas that will also fill company’s coffers and keep investors happy?

Having sifted through and weighed my thoughts and feelings about DTC testing or other genetic test delivery models, I have concluded that my problem is not with DTC or other models per se. My argument is with how these new testing approaches are introduced into clinical practice, typically under some version of the banner of liberating testing and bringing it to the people. I do not doubt the labs’ sincerity when they say they are trying to improve access to medical care and reduce the suffering from cancer and other illnesses. But these are as much marketing strategies as they are medical strategies. Labs should not be calling the shots on the introduction of new tests and practice models because, in the absence of well designed studies, we really have no idea if these new approaches are effective in reducing cancer risks and increasing high risk screening when indicated, or if they are in the patients’ best emotional and psychological interests. Just throwing a mess of tests out there and encouraging everyone to take one is, in my view, irresponsible.

A better approach is to first conduct controlled and ideally randomized studies that evaluate both new and novel testing strategies to determine the most beneficial one(s) for patients, or if different types of patients benefit differently from different strategies. For example, age, family history, medical history, psychological functioning, and socio-economic status could all conceivably affect outcomes, not too mention the all too real possibility that many Americans may lose health insurance in the near future. While labs should play a critical role in that evaluative process, to keep it as clean as possible the studies need to be conducted and overseen by researchers who have no financial benefit from the outcomes of such studies.

We are in this together, so let’s work together.

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Is A Lab A Health Care Professional? An Update On “Everyone’s Worst Nightmare”

Two years ago I authored a blogpost, Everyone’s Worst Nightmare , about a family’s experience with genetic variant interpretation, communication (or lack of) by healthcare providers with families, and an outcome that couldn’t be more tragic – the death of a child. Here I am providing an update on the legal status of the lawsuit brought on behalf of the child by his mother. In my original posting, I did not identify the child’s syndrome or the specific court case. However, since then, the story has been picked up by a variety of media outlets (Turna Ray at GenomeWeb has done the best reporting on the details) and it now being a matter of public record, I have included some particulars here .

Briefly, the story began about 12 years ago when the child was experiencing multiple, intractable seizures and had a clinical picture consistent with Dravet syndrome. Unbeknownst to the parents, genetic testing was ordered and the child was found to carry a mutation in SCN1A, the gene linked to Dravet syndrome. The mutation was interpreted as a variant of uncertain significance, though at the time there was reason to believe that it could be pathogenic. Based on the genetic test result, it was felt that the child did not have Dravet syndrome and was kept on a sodium channel blocker, which unfortunately is contra-indicated for patients with this syndrome. Not long afterwards the child died of seizures at the age of two.

The patient did not find out that genetic testing had been performed until about 7 years after the test was ordered. Shortly after the mother learned of the test result and inquired into its meaning, the lab reclassified the variant as pathogenic.

In February 2016 the mother initiated a lawsuit on behalf of her deceased child in the fifth judicial circuit court in Richland County, South Carolina. The defendant’s lawyers requested that the case be dismissed on the grounds of restrictions imposed by the state’s statute of repose, i.e., a law that states legal action must be initiated within a certain period from the time the alleged offense occurred (it is similar to but slightly different from a statute of limitations). The defendants presented the argument that a genetic testing laboratory is a licensed health care provider and South Carolina has a 3 year statute of repose for lawsuits brought against licensed health care providers. Since the events took place a decade ago, the defendants asserted that the case should be dismissed. The plaintiff countered that, under South Carolina state law, a genetic testing lab that is separate from a hospital or a clinic cannot be considered a licensed health care provider and therefore the statute of repose did not apply. The plaintiff contended that this is a case of ordinary negligence, not medical malpractice, since the lab should not be considered a licensed health care provider and therefore the suit should be allowed to proceed.

The case was then sent to the US District Court in 2017 to rule on whether dismissal was warranted based on the defendant’s argument that the lab is a licensed health care provider and therefore the statue of repose applies. The federal judge then referred the case to the South Carolina Supreme Court to, as the legal lingo goes, certify the question of whether a lab can be considered a licensed health care provider under the specific provisions of South Carolina Code of Laws Section 38-79-410. Although we may have our individual opinions on this question, it is strictly a matter of law that varies by state. South Carolina law defines a licensed health care provider as “physicians and surgeons; directors, officers, and trustees of hospitals; nurses; oral surgeons; dentists; pharmacists; chiropractors; optometrists; podiatrists; hospitals; nursing homes; or any similar category of licensed health care providers.” (italics added)

The South Carolina Supreme Court heard the case on February 14th, 2018. For those of you who have never witnessed a state Supreme Court hearing, I recommend that you watch the ~40 minute video of the session. The court’s decision, which will be about whether the suit can proceed rather than determining liability, will depend on how it interprets whether a laboratory is a “similar category” to the health professionals listed in the state code. I thought that the five justices were insightful and asked thoughtful questions. As a side note, at about the 29-30 minute mark of the hearing, Justice Few gives a shout out to our genetics colleagues at the Greenwood Genetics Center.

The court does not have a set date on when they will issue an opinion; as the Supremes, they call that shot (the South Carolina Supreme Court’s motto is Nil ultra, which roughly translates as “Nothing is above us”). Typically, though, the time frame on a ruling is in weeks or months. If the court decides that the lab is not a healthcare provider, then the plaintiff’s suit will be allowed to continue, though I got the sense that the court felt that even if the ruling were in favor of the defendants that the plaintiff may still have alternate legal pathways to pursue a case. I will keep the good readers of The DNA Exchange posted on important developments in this case, which I suspect will continue to drag on for some time after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

With the rapid expansion of genetic testing in the clinical and consumer spaces, and the growing involvement of non-genetics professionals in ordering genetic testing, bad clinical outcome scenarios are likely to become more common. Critical questions about variant interpretation and legal liability aside, from a genetic counseling standpoint, this case highlights the importance of clear and ongoing communication with patients and their families about the limits and clinical interpretation of genetic testing. This can be extraordinarily difficult when a family is trying to cope with caring for a child with a life-threatening disease, but genetic counselors are trained to work precisely in those situations. Genetic testing may be simple to order and widely available but it benefits no one without good clinical care and counseling.

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