Acting In Bad Faith? A Proposed Religion-Based Genetic Counseling Training Program

As some DNA Exchange readers may know, Union University, a self-described Christ-centered school in Tennessee, is working to establish a faith-based genetic counseling training program. According to the school’s website, the program’s goal is “to train and equip excellent genetic counselors who are compassionate pro-life Christians.” As far as I know, the program has not yet applied for accreditation through the Accreditation Council For Genetic Counseling (ACGC), though it is apparently planning to do so. The program is also seeking endorsements from the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Christian Medical and Dental Association. For all that, it does not yet appear to have the funding to support the program.

Let me be clear up front – I am not anti-religion. Religion plays a critical role for many of us in establishing our identities, values, core beliefs, communities, and how we cope with and understand the world around us. Nor am I critical of any genetic counselor who has deeply held religious beliefs or opposes abortion; religious diversity only enriches the profession. But I am critical of religious teachings that can cause harm and that are used to justify sub-standard medical care.

The program describes pro-life genetic counseling as focusing on these values:

  • Relationship and community within a Christian context, including prayer for and with the patients
  • Carefully and lovingly applying Scripture to each situation
  • An in-depth interpretation of the genetic data, including ambiguities, in ways that all patients can understand
  • Connecting patients with others in similar situations
  • Advocating for children born with non-traditional genetic profiles
  • Advocating for adoption in all of its Biblical forms
  • Applying Christian genetic counseling principles to patients making genetically-related decisions at any age, including decisions regarding reproduction or end of life issues
  • Providing continuing education on the latest data and advancements in the field through the academy and to the greater public

I am not sure who the faculty might be. The program’s administrator has a PhD in Experimental Pathology and specializes in plant tissue culture but does not appear to have training, publications, or accreditation in medical genetics or genetic counseling. A director is not named though the site acknowledges that this person needs to be a certified genetic counselor.

I suspect that, like me, many genetic counselors are not comfortable with the idea of a faith-based training program. It’s like having a Creationist teach a course on evolution. I don’t know which specific Christian tenets the Union program will adhere to as there is some variability in the moral positions and beliefs of different branches of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Tennessee Baptist Convention, which the school is affiliated with. But there are a number of potential concerns in terms of the ability of the program to produce appropriately trained graduates whose practice can conform to the NSGC Code of Ethics and provide compassionate care that supports the wide spectrum of core beliefs, values, and life styles across the patient population.

Reproductive options such as abortion, gamete and embryo donation, and carrier screening for purposes of avoiding or terminating a pregnancy are explicitly prohibited by most Evangelical Christian churches. Hence faith-based genetic counseling does not provide, as the NSGC Code of Ethics states, “the necessary facts, and clarifying the alternatives and anticipated consequences.” This violates a long-standing core principle of the practice of genetic counseling. One might argue that these are not viable options anyway for some Evangelical Christians and so it is not a serious ethical lapse if they are not offered. But a good counselor will clarify up front what the patient’s values are and, if patients are opposed to certain courses of action, then those options will not be offered or judged. A good counselor will also not assume that Evangelical Christians are a monolithic block who all strictly adhere to their church’s teachings about contraception and abortion. What matters is not what choices are available to all patients. Rather what is important is to explore the choices available to a specific patient based on their values, beliefs, and social situations.

Another area of concern about faith-based genetic counseling relates to matters of sex, sexuality, and gender. For most Evangelical Christians, there are two and only two sexes and two genders based on sex and gender assigned at birth, gender is biologically determined (man and woman), anything other than sex between husband and wife is not permissible, and homosexual behavior is not tolerated. If an unmarried couple or a single pregnant person came for genetic counseling, could the counselor withhold overt moral judgment? This belief would also make it impossible to utilize the most recent pedigree standardization guidelines, which emphasizes the importance of appropriately depicting people of different genders as well as those who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth.

And the school takes their censure of homosexuality seriously. In 2015, Union University withdrew from its association with the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) after CCCU failed to censure two other affiliated schools that altered their hiring and benefits policies to include same-sex couples. In 2017, Union’s president and 3 faculty were signatories to The Nashville Statement, a document that condemns homosexuality. In 2020, Union University rescinded the admission of a student in their graduate-level nursing program after it was discovered that he was in a same-sex relationship, and other LGBQT+ students claim the school has tried to them to undergo harmful conversion therapy. The school’s code of conduct, called a Community Covenant, states that “The promotion, advocacy, defense, or ongoing practice of a homosexual lifestyle (including same-sex dating behaviors) is also contrary to our community values.” So a genetic counselor who graduated from such a program could not even publicly or professionally support patients who are not cisgender heterosexual.

In Evangelical Christian teaching, people who are intersex are accepted into the church but told, quoting from the Bible (Matthew 19:12), that they are “eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb” and that God will reveal their “true” sex and they will be “healed” on the Last Judgment Day. It is, of course, biologically inaccurate to state there are only two sexes and genders and that people who are intersex are somehow broken. It is also psychologically and socially damaging and leads to higher suicide rates and psychological trauma for people who are intersex and/or non-binary. There’s nothing pro-life about that. And I suspect that most intersex people would be offended at being called “eunuchs.”

Some Evangelical Christian teachings, and Catholic teachings for that matter, typically prohibit contraception and sterilization, except in certain rare circumstances, even though contraception – surgical or otherwise – can result in improved health and economic well-being for women and families. For some Evangelicals and Catholics, this ban could also be interpreted to mean that women who carry pathogenic BRCA1/2 mutations might not be able to obtain a pre-menopausal risk-reducing oophorectomy. Not surprisingly, the Evangelical stance on sterilization and contraception has historical ties to eugenics (of course, so does genetic counseling so we can’t claim the moral high ground here) and the fear that Christians, especially White Christians, are reproducing at lower rates and will be replaced by other races and people with other religious beliefs who purportedly  have higher fertility rates (I know of no direct connection between eugenics and Union University or its genetic counseling program). Madison Grant continues to raise his ugly head. Furthermore, Union is affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Association, which itself is, as noted above, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Convention was founded in Georgia in 1845 by white supremacists and supported slavery and anti-miscegenation laws, and opposed the Civil Rights Movement well into the 20th century, though by the 1990s, the Southern Baptist Convention denounced its past ties to these beliefs and is now ethnically and racially more diverse.

People who identify as Christian, especially conservative Christians, are less likely to utilize genetic testing and counseling and providers who identify as Christian are less likely to offer these services to their patients. Since about 14% of Americans identify as White Evangelical Protestants, they represent a significant minority who are possibly not being reached by currently available genetic services. Faith-based genetic counselors could argue that they would increase the utilization of genetic counseling in this population, which would align with principles that are key to NSGC’s JEDI initiatives. However, they are doing nothing to address JEDI issues, and in fact are working at cross-purposes to it if they are providing sub-standard and inaccurate counseling and condemning anything other than heterosexual behavior and telling people who are born with sexual variations that they are “broken.” The genetic counseling profession embraces diversity, including religious diversity, but it does not support intolerance.

On the other hand, the genetic counseling profession needs to make clear that it is very supportive of the range of religious views of their patients. We are perfectly capable of working with conservative religious patients while also maintaining our personal religious beliefs. The experience of even some of the more conservative Amish groups with genetics by and large shows this.  And, as Frances Collins and other scientists demonstrate, Evangelical Christian and other religious scientists and physicians participate in first class and ethically acceptable genetic services and scientific endeavors while accepting standard scientific theory, research, and data and without receiving training from a conservative religious institution. But clearly the genetic counseling profession can do better at actively working with religious groups to demonstrate that genetic counselors can provide services in a supportive, respectful, and non-judgmental manner and supporting our colleagues who are religiously conservative.

I am not familiar with the fine details of obtaining ACGC accreditation, but I do know that it is a lengthy, demanding, and complicated process. It is possible, maybe even probable, that ACGC will deny certification to Union University. The program could then decide to develop their own accrediting organization that specifically certifies only graduates of faith-based programs. After all, that’s what genetic counselors did when we separated from the American Board of Medical Genetics back in 1992. While this would likely be illegal in some states that already have genetic counseling licensure, it might be less of an issue in states that don’t currently have licensure. It’s also possible that some conservative legislatures in states that already have licensure would be willing to modify existing laws to extend genetic counseling licensure to graduates of faith-based programs.

Faith-based genetic counseling can be read as being part of a larger problem of some religious groups using legislatures and judiciaries to dictate medical care guidelines for the general population that aligns with the religion’s beliefs. In addition, some religious groups have increased their control of the practices and policies of health care institutions by purchasing them as well as by creating versions of health insurance plans, something I warned about a decade ago in a 2013 plenary session at the NSGC Annual Education Conference (Thursday, October 10, 2013 at 9:45 AM, to be precise). For example, Catholic hospitals comprise the largest non-profit group of health care providers in the US. This can result in severely limiting access to abortion in states where it is still legal and and reducing access to contraception and surgical sterilization. They are literally trying to force the entire US population to embrace a very narrow minority interpretation of Christian theology.

But the profession can’t only be angry about it, however justified the anger might be. We can’t ignore and dismiss it. We have to understand it, adapt our practice, respond thoughtfully, examine some of our core ethical principles, and be willing to take a stand on controversial issues. It raises some tough questions, but we have to answer them.

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Guest Post: Reproductive Rights: When the Intent is Advocacy but the Impact is Exclusion / By Liann Jimmons

Author bioLiann Jimmons is a public health and pediatric genetic counselor whose work focuses on increasing access to genetic services for patients, and increasing access to the profession for future genetic counselors from historically excluded and exploited backgrounds. She is an active member and mentor in the Minority Genetic Professionals Network, Vice Chair of the NSGC Equity and Inclusion Implementation subcommittee, and a member of the NSGC Podcast subcommittee. Her work is driven by her personal experiences as a Black, Vietnamese, disabled, queer woman. 

More and more genetic counselors have taken to social media, especially Twitter, to share their thoughts on incidences of injustice. Most recently, the Roe v. Wade overturn sparked impassioned conversation surrounding reproductive rights. In their defense of abortion, some genetic counselors consciously or unconsciously reminded everyone of the problematic foundations of this profession which grew out of the ideals of cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled, nuclear white families.

“It’s just social media, don’t take it so seriously.”

“It’s just social media, no one should take me seriously.”

Both statements most of us have either heard or said before and there was a time where they carried more truth. However, it is willfully ignorant and irresponsible to insist either are still accurate assessments of the impact of social media. Genetic counselors from historically excluded and exploited backgrounds have repeatedly explained how suppositional intentions are not enough to excuse impacts of tangible, enduring harm. Yet, the “unintentionally” ableist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, etc. ideas prevail both on- and offline

After the overturn, #GeneChat was filled with immeasurable sadness and anger at this attack on bodily autonomy and privacy. However, too many were thoughtless when naming whose bodies deserved autonomy and privacy. Woman this, women that, sisters, mothers, aunties, girls, ladies, daughters, wives. Genetic counselors too loudly reminded everyone that this field was built for and by cishet women. Our trans, nonbinary, queer, and gender expansive colleagues, future colleagues, and patients deserved to feel seen, respected, cared for, and safe. But they were effectively excluded.

Shamefully abundant were posts by genetic counselors grieving over the potentially disabled children forced onto the world, reeking of the rotten roots of eugenics in this field. These posts implied disabled folks are inherently unwanted, unloved, and will be unable to live meaningful, fulfilling lives. Disabilities, visible and invisible, are all around us, your colleagues included. The grieving I’m doing is for the patients harmed by their own provider’s ableism. And I grieve for myself and other disabled genetic counselors being told we are less than.

In addition, there were many posts implying all pregnancies conceived from sexual violence should be terminated, from reducing them to reminders of their parents’ trauma to the hypothetical negative impact on society, with one post describing unwanted children as destined to become criminals because they are poor and abused. Pedestaling abortion as solution these greater societal disparities is an example of white feminism. These ideas are coded in racism and classism, and lead to poorer outcomes in already marginalized communities. This is what happens when advocacy is not intersectional.

My simple ask, please be mindful of language on public platforms to avoid unintentionally sending messages favoring eugenics.

Genetic counselors’ intent is not enough anymore and it hasn’t been for a long time. Excuses like, “It was a mistake because… we forgot, we weren’t thinking, it was in the heat of the moment, we’re still learning, we didn’t know, etc.,” send the message, “We forget about or don’t think of people not like us. Our instincts are to protect ourselves and those like us. We have not put in the effort to learn about people not like us.” To effectively address mistakes and prevent them from happening again, learn how to self-reflect and simply apologize without the if’s, and’s, but’s, because’s, or well actually’s.

The rhetoric used in this discussion of reproductive rights triggered a larger, much needed conversation about the language we use in public spaces. Some people may read this and feel overwhelmed, but consider the marginalized folks who can’t not think about these issues because these are our lived experiences. Lastly, a reminder: if there is too much to consider or you don’t feel informed enough, you always have the choice to simply not post.

Since such a small percentage of genetic counselors are even on social media, one might think that our words matter less. In reality, it’s the opposite. To outsiders, the small sliver of our community they’re able to find is interpreted as representative of the whole. If you choose to participate in these spaces identifiable as a genetic counselor, please be more responsible and inclusive in your statements for the sake of us within the profession, those who will enter, and those we serve.

Author’s Note: While I originally was moved to write this piece to advocate for patients, specifically inclusivity in conversations about reproductive rights, I could not speak about the harm exclusivity causes to patients without acknowledging how exclusive practices harm and weaken the genetic counseling community from within. We cannot bring about justice for those we serve or ourselves without fully surrendering the idea that GCs are the exception and completely embracing the painful self-reflection that shows, as a field, we may not always be as progressive as we think. Being thoughtful about our language and inclusivity is just as important for the safety of our patients as it is for each of us. 

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Guest Post: Prison Abolition 101 (For Genetic Counselors) by Cassandra Barrett, PhD, CGC; Artwork by Mike Nickles

 

 

About the author: Cassandra Barrett graduated from the University of Utah graduate program in genetic counseling in 2021. She holds a Ph.D. in biological engineering and specializes in neurogenetics, variant classification, and precision medicine. She has been involved with prison organizing and education since 2017 and is currently an organizer with Liberation Lit in the Kansas City area. She can be reached at cas9bar@gmail.com

About the artist: Mike Nickles is an artist and writer from Hillsboro, Kansas. He is currently incarcerated in the Lansing Correctional Facility. Mike shares his work with the hope that more people will know the truth about the realities of incarceration and be moved to action. You can follow and connect with Mike on his new Instagram page where he shares his art and writing @inside_out_mike.

People in prison are not a group we think about much when it comes to J.E.D.I initiatives in genetic counseling. What do prisons even have to do with genetics? I have been involved in prison organizing and education for about six years now. As I have learned over time from my mentors and friends on the inside – mass incarceration impacts everything, everywhere, all the time. And that includes genetic counseling.

My hope in writing here is to get more genetic counselors thinking about the impacts the prison industrial complex has on our patients, our profession, and our own lives. So, in the spirit of subversion, I want to share some of the effects I have seen; I’m sure there are many more interfaces between the prison system and genetic counseling that I have yet to think of. I will add a disclaimer that I have never been incarcerated, nor have I had any close family who has been incarcerated.

The first and most simple connection is that (formerly) incarcerated people are our patients. In fact, they are quite likely to be people who could benefit from genetic counseling. Individuals with disabilities are massively over-represented in the prison population. In many cases people are incarcerated as a function of ableism, whether that’s a person with a neurological condition such as Huntington’s disease being arrested secondary to their symptoms, a Deaf or nonverbal person being unable to communicate with poorly trained police, or a person with disabilities being forced into poverty and therefore more contact with police. It goes without saying that BIPOC Deaf and disabled people face the greatest risk here. The overturning of Roe v. Wade has also expanded the risk of incarceration for pregnant people and their providers.

When I started my master’s program in genetic counseling I had already been involved for a while in prison education, teaching Biology 101 on a volunteer basis. I was excited to learn more about genetic counseling practices and competencies specific to counseling incarcerated patients. I quickly realized there would be no such resources forthcoming. Despite the fact that we all counsel folks who have experienced incarceration, there is next to no discussion of the needs of this population within our profession. I have only ever found a single role play and one wonderful master’s thesis relating to genetic counseling for incarcerated women (if you know of any more resources, send them my way!). In a country where over 600,000 people go to prison annually, this is an important area of cultural competency to be trained in. As a majority white cis female profession, I suspect that most of us have never considered ourselves to be at risk of incarceration. In fact, many of us may feel that we benefit from prisons. These days my prison organizing work is centered on mutual learning and relationship building, rather than teaching.

I want to be cautious about advocating that genetic counselors invest time in building out cultural competency toolkits, research projects, roleplays, courses, etc. around incarceration. While these are important things to do and should be done, I instead hope that we will focus more of our efforts on ending mass incarceration and build systems of true accountability and restorative justice. The actions of the prison system itself speak loudly in favor of its own abolition. Learning about the realities of daily life for people in prison is an important way to inform our counseling and our politics. But prisons are intended to be cut off from the rest of the world. They are often built in rural communities. It’s hard to get information in and out of a prison. I have come to see this as an intentional part of their construction. If more of us knew about the realities of prison life, it would be much more difficult to justify their continued existence. I hope that this is just a starting point that will lead any readers to seek the firsthand accounts of people most impacted by incarceration. A reading list with some good places to start is provided at the end. And I want to share with you a few things I have heard repeatedly from my incarcerated pen pals, students, and co-organizers and that have been published in peer reviewed studies of prison life. I hope you will take time to digest these stories, consider the questions they raise, and ask your own.

❖ Prison wages are shockingly low. The average national wage is 63 cents per hour. In some states, work is unpaid. In Louisiana for example, many incarcerated people still pick cotton for as little as 2 cents per hour. Many people in state prisons work to keep the prison running, support state institutions, or are contracted out by the prison as laborers. I’ve known people who built furniture for the university where I got my master’s in genetic counseling, printed flyers for the state department of health, took customer service calls for the state DMV, or made debt collection calls for private companies. Private prisons are by no means the only institutions benefitting from exploitative practices. In what ways might your institution benefit from this type of exploitation? How is your patient with an incarcerated parent going to afford genetic testing given such wages?

❖ Costs in prison are shockingly high. It will cost someone in prison 25 cents to send a character-limited e-message to a loved one and just as much for the loved one to message them back. Imagine spending a quarter for every text you send in a day. Communication services in prison are big money. Adding money to an account to make calls or for someone to buy toiletries at the commissary (a small convenience store inside the prison) will be coupled with massive “service fees”- think Ticketmaster x10. Commissary prices are massively inflated. During this summer’s heat wave, the cost of a small fan in the Kansas prisons where I live was $44 or 440 hours of work with the state wage here. By the time folks can afford a fan, it will already be winter. Prisons make big money for their contracted vendors. Does your company’s retirement investment portfolio include any prison vendors? How much money is it going to cost your patient to call their incarcerated family member for more family health history information?

❖ Prison is disgusting. One of my pen pals in Oregon asked me to tell everyone I know that he was recently served a cockroach floating in syrup for breakfast. Their kitchen has a rat infestation. In some places, shared toilets are only flushable a few times per day. You go until it is full because you and the dozens of other people on your bunk can only flush four times per day. You have to buy soap, menstrual products, deodorant, etc. out of your own pocket at high commissary costs. Not all your bunk mates will be able to afford this. With no A/C on in your dormitory, the smell alone will keep you awake all night. Lack of proper climate control is a common issue across prisons leading to mold infestations and heat/cold related deaths and illness. Is this the type of environment you would recommend for your patients? How might you feel and behave in such an environment?

❖ Prisons are cruel. Suicide watch involves being locked in a cell all by yourself with the lights on 24/7, naked except for a heavy “anti-suicide smock.” People in prison are routinely denied healthcare and may have their diagnoses withheld from them. I have had students in prison who were denied x-rays for broken bones and who were not told they had terminal cancer. Sexual assaults both by other incarcerated people and the staff meant to guard them are commonplace. Like on the outside, Deaf people and those with disabilities are disproportionately targeted. HEARD, a cross disability abolitionist organization, estimates that some 80% of Deaf people in prison are raped while incarcerated. If you are sexually assaulted and require an abortion, you will have to pay for it yourself in 16 states, if you are even allowed access to the procedure by staff. The average cost is over $500, or 793 hours of work for the average incarcerated person (although people incarcerated in women’s prisons tend to earn less than those in men’s prisons, just like on the outside). If you give birth instead, you may be shackled during the process and likely will not be allowed to hold your own baby once they are born. How do genetic counselors put patients into contact with the carceral system through mandatory reporting, documentation of medical procedures, etc.? What screening procedures, medical diets, mobility aids, genetic information, etc. are people in prison being barred from?

These stories are commonplace and routine. They do not represent failures of the system but are rather purposeful features of it. As genetic counselors we know that individual genetic conditions may be rare, but as a whole they are common. They too affect us all. Discussions about ending incarceration belong in genetic counseling because we are all impacted. I hope we can begin to equip ourselves to have those conversations through education and relationship building. I look forward to hearing what questions come up within our community and how they may shape our practice moving forward. It’s a long road, but it’s time to get started on down the path.


Resources

Pen pal programs are incredibly important! Isolation in prisons is a serious issue. For those of us on the outside, building relationships with people on the inside is essential if we are committed to this work. My pen pals are some of the coolest people I know and writing letters is a simple way to get involved. There are many organizations that run pen pal programs including Black and Pink, Liberation Lit, and Abolition Apostles.

The Visiting Room Project is a collection of stories about the realities of life without parole in Angola State Prison in Louisiana, a place with the highest concentration of individuals serving life sentences in the world.

Ear Hustle is a podcast about “the daily realities of life inside prison shared by those living it, and stories from the outside, post-incarceration.”

Resisting Invisibility is a blog published by Liberation Lit, a group of readers both inside and outside of prisons working to build a better world without cages. For full transparency, I am an organizer with Liberation Lit.

Mariame Kaba, Dean Spade, Victoria Law, and adrienne maree brown are just a few important, accessible organizers and authors whose work is incredible and essential. They have been a part of exciting initiatives including the NYC Transformative Justice Hub and Project NIA that provide resources to begin tackling difficult questions about prison abolition (If not prisons, then what? What about the rapists, the murders? How do we keep ourselves safe?). Check out their work and any/all publications by these authors. I especially recommend Prisons Make Us Safer: And 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration by Victoria Law as an introduction to the realities of the prison system in the United States. 

If you are looking to do some truly deeper diving, this is the place to go for an archive of resources.

Finally, I have previously published a related article in Perspectives in Genetic Counseling. The intersection of genetic counseling and the prison industrial complex is an area I hope to continue writing about; I welcome any feedback, questions, and connections from colleagues!

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Unprofitable Genetic Testing Labs – The Size of the Loss, The Reasons for the Loss, and What It Means for Genetic Counseling and Genetic Counselors

By Katie Stoll, MS, Jessie Conta, MS, and Michael Astion, MD, PHD

Genetic counseling is a critical part of the genetic services process, beyond just coordination and ordering of a genetic test. However, as the genetic counseling profession has grown alongside the expansion of genetic testing, it has become increasingly intertwined with and dependent upon the financial success of commercial genetic testing laboratories. The relationship risks undervaluing genetic counseling and the breadth of the services genetic counselors provide.

The genetic testing industry has seen rapid growth over the past two decades, with many new companies and billions of dollars invested into start-up genetic testing labs. Despite the enthusiasm of venture capitalists and other investors, commercial genetic testing labs are largely unprofitable, and the losses are significant and sustained. This is shown in Tables 1 and 2 below which are derived from analyzing publicly available, quarterly and annual financial reports (10-Q and10-K Filings) of publicly traded companies whose primary business is clinical genetic/genomic testing.

As shown in the tables, it is common for publicly traded, genetic testing labs to report annual losses of >$100 million. In 2021, only one lab, Fulgent, made a profit (Table 1). However, Fulgent’s 2021 – 2022 quarterly reports (Table 2) indicate that profits aren’t attributable to genetic testing, but rather to COVID test sales, which accounted for ~88% of their 2021 revenue. Myriad has seen a consistent decline in revenue since the US Supreme Court’s ruling in 2013, which forbid human gene patenting and therefore caused Myriad to lose their lucrative BRCA testing monopoly. Although the losses have not been as severe as their competitors, Myriad has not been profitable since 2019, and they have reported greater losses in the first two quarters of 2022 than their annual loss in 2021.

Profit and loss data is difficult to obtain from private genetic testing companies such as Color Genomics, as well as from genetic testing labs owned by much larger, diversified companies, as is the case with Ambry being owned by Konica Minolta. Similarly, profit and loss data on genetic testing is unavailable from integrated health systems, academic medical centers, or publicly traded labs –like Quest, LabCorp, and BioReference— who only have a small portion of their overall testing business in genetics. In regards to academic labs and labs in integrated health systems, our experience, as well as discussions we have had with colleagues strongly suggest that genetic testing is performed at a financial loss, and that it is the overall profit of these full-service labs that allow them to support genetic testing.

Why aren’t genetic testing companies profitable?

Publicly traded genetic testing labs are unprofitable for a variety of reasons. The top reasons are poor reimbursement from insurance plans and patients; intense competition; and excessive expenses for sales, marketing, and executive compensation. In addition, the inclusion of genetic counseling, which companies have highly valued as part of their testing service, adds an expense that is not seen in the other analytic sections of a full-service clinical lab.

Insurance reimbursement

The service of genetic testing is a costly one to deliver and is much more expensive than a lab’s cost to perform other tests. For example, the fully loaded cost of performing a typical test in a highly automated, hospital-based core laboratory is in the range of $10-$20 per test. This includes common tests like complete blood counts, electrolytes, basic coagulation tests, thyroid screening tests, and liver function tests.  For an insurance plan this type of common testing is >65% of their expenses. The cost to labs of genetic testing is much higher, often 10-100-fold higher. Genetic testing usually represents < 20% of an insurance plan’s spending on lab tests.

Why is genetic testing so costly to labs? The main reason is that it is difficult scale genetic testing in a manner analogous to common, high-volume laboratory tests. Compared to common tests, genetic testing is more labor-intensive, more time consuming, involves higher-wage staff, and involves technology that has a higher cost per test. Genetic testing is time consuming because it requires complex tasks not seen with common tests, such as variant analysis, curation, review, and updating. And for many companies, it also includes providing the genetic counseling service, which is often bundled into the service of providing the test. Overall, genetic testing is a personalized, complex technical service which has resisted, for now, the type of full automation that has benefited other parts of the clinical lab.

The high cost for performing genetic testing necessitates high costs to patients and their insurance companies. Historically, insurance companies are mediocre at regulating high-volume, low-cost lab tests because it is too cumbersome and expensive to manage. However, insurance companies have many effective tools for regulating high-cost procedures, including genetic tests. The result is that high-volume, low-cost laboratory tests have a relatively open door to reasonable insurance payments, and insurers invest only a little energy toward closing that door. In the case of genetic testing, the door is closed or only partially open.

Besides negotiating fees with certain labs, the main method that insurance plans use to control genetic test reimbursement is detailed medical necessity policies tied to preauthorization systems. Insurance companies either develop the policies and pre-auth systems or purchase them from third-party benefits managers. Overall, the method involves using software that aids decision making in combination with genetic counselors, nurses, and physicians who adjudicate cases at various decision levels. This approach is then married to an insurance plan’s usual and customary procedures for handling grievances from patients and labs that have been denied payment. For insurance plans, this type of complex system, which is both software and labor intensive, would have a poor return on investment if applied to low-cost, high volume lab tests. But for genetic testing, this type of system has an excellent return on investment, and so insurers are highly motivated to regulate genetic testing. In addition, these insurance systems tend to be overly tuned to block fraud, waste and abuse, and often delayed in keeping up with scientific evidence. Therefore, insurance systems may block some medically necessary genetic testing.

Patients bear high out-of-pocket costs for genetic testing. This is because they are financially liable when their insurers do not cover the test, and, even when insurers provide coverage, there still can be high deductibles or co-pays. In the laboratory industry, it is very expensive to recover the money that the patient owes, and poor financial recoveries from patients is common. This failure to recover the patient portion of the bill adversely affects the bottom line of genetic testing labs.

Response to poor reimbursement from insurers and patients

Many labs performing genetic testing have responded to preauthorization requirements by investing in resources – which sometimes can create an entire division or department – that provide support with prior-authorizations, as well as appeals and support when test coverage is denied. This can help grow the testing business because it removes a barrier that blocks some providers from ordering testing. However, the removal of the barrier comes at a high cost to the genetic testing lab.

To help patients directly, some labs have promised patients low out-of-pocket costs either through reducing the patient’s responsibility under their insurance plan, or by promoting self-pay options that avoids involving the insurance plan. Thus, some labs promise patient out-of-pocket maximums, typically advertised as about $100 when insurance does not cover testing.

For self-pay options that do not involve insurance, the price for genetic testing for patients is often much lower than the list price available to care providers, and it is highly likely that price does not cover the costs of the tests. The current going rate at most labs for self-pay testing for multigene panels is around $250, which is usually much less than what labs try to collect from payers, including Medicare and Medicaid for the same test.

Sales and Marketing

A review of publicly available, 10-K submissions, show that it is not unusual for genetic testing companies to have marketing and sales budgets around 40-50% or more of revenue, which is much higher than typically seen in established, full service clinical laboratories. This most likely relates to the goal of growing revenue and capturing market share, despite the high cost of achieving this in a competitive, and poorly reimbursed business. Those NSGC parties, sponsored luncheon and dinner events, “free” CEU opportunities, and even the complementary genetic counseling, all come at a cost for the marketing and sales budgets of these companies.

Executive compensation

Another contributor to financial losses in publicly traded genetic testing labs is the high pay of executive leadership, including chief executives. Review of executive compensation data shows that executive pay is often inversely correlated with net profits – the longer that a company lasts, regardless of how deep the losses grow, executives tend to be well rewarded. For example, Natera reported compensation for the company’s chief executives totaling $8 million while company losses totaled $128 million in 2018. Contrast this to 2021, when Natera’s C-Suite compensation was > $53 million despite company losses that were > $471 million.

Although these companies are not generating operating profits, their investors aren’t necessarily hurting as a result. Stock prices for boutique, genetic testing labs don’t often sync with the lab’s financial health, and based on reported trading of company insiders, some investors are gaining significant wealth despite the losses of these labs. For example, Invitae hit all time stock highs in December 2020 despite enormous losses reported in every quarter that year. The net loss for Invitae in 2020 was >$600 million, while that same year Invitae insiders cashed out more > $46 million in stock. Another example is that the current CEO of Natera cashed in nearly $76 million in stock over the past four years, while cumulative losses for Natera totaled >$ 1 billion over that same period.

What is at stake for genetic counseling?

A 2018 publication in the Journal of Genetic Counseling analyzed the financial challenges of commercial genetic testing labs and what that could mean for genetic counselors. The authors speculated that genetic testing companies may not find a path to profitability, and their ability to support genetic counseling services may subsequently decrease.

Since this initial analysis, the losses of these companies have continued to grow, and investors have become less enthusiastic. This has put pressure on many companies to change and adjust their business strategy in order to survive. For some, this means cost cutting measures to decrease their cash burn with hopes to increase the odds of profitability. And as predicted, difficult decisions are taking place with many genetic testing companies resulting in layoffs of staff, including genetic counselors. Last month, Invitae announced layoffs of over 1,000 staff, including most of their clinical genetic counselors. SEMA4 and Ambry Genetics have also had layoffs in recent months. Given the overall picture of the financial health of all these labs, and increasing challenges in raising funds, it is likely there will be more layoffs to come for genetic counselors and others who work at these companies.

What does the current financial state of genetic testing laboratories mean for the delivery of genetic services and for the genetic counseling profession? A substantial portion of genetic counseling is now delivered through genetic testing laboratories who have packaged genetic testing with the offer of genetic counseling to draw in clients. If we see fewer companies maintaining genetic counselors on their staff, where will genetic counseling support come from for these patients? In addition to the labs themselves, many of the growing genetic counseling telehealth companies are closely tied to the testing laboratories, with much of their funding and contracts coming through commercial laboratories rather than direct patient referrals or contracts with clinics. It seems possible that these arrangements could also be negatively affected with current financial pressures and cuts to “extra” costs. Genetic counseling is not an “extra” bonus service, but rather a critical part of the genetic services process. Relying on genetic testing companies’ funding to ensure access to this service does not appear to be a sustainable model.

For genetic counseling services to be sustained, independent of the financial health of corporate testing laboratories, it is essential that genetic counseling be recognized and reimbursed as an independent service, with inherent value that is separate from genetic testing. Recognition by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is a necessary step towards sustainable and independent genetic counseling services, regardless of service delivery modality. I hope you all will join in continued advocacy to see the Access to Genetic Counselor Services Act H.R. 2144 / S. 1450 enacted into law.

Michael L. Astion is a clinical pathologist who is Medical Director, Department of Laboratories at Seattle Children’s Hospital and Clinical Professor of Laboratory Medicine at the University of Washington. For almost two decades he worked at the University of Washington, Department of Laboratory Medicine where he was a Professor and Director of Reference Laboratory Services. His career is divided between clinical service, teaching, clinical service, and research and development. He is the editor-in-chief of Patient Safety Focus, which appears quarterly within AACCs Clinical Laboratory News. He is one of the founders of PLUGS (Patient-centered Laboratory Utilization Guidance Services), a national collaboration whose mission is to improve test ordering, retrieval, interpretation and reimbursement. Dr. Astion is a frequent speaker at professional meetings, where he lectures on issues related to laboratory test utilization; test interpretation; laboratory economics and outreach; and medical errors.

Jessie Conta is a licensed genetic counselor in the Department of Laboratories at Seattle Children’s Hospital. She received her Master of Science degree in genetic counseling from Brandeis University. As the Manager of the Laboratory Stewardship Program at Seattle Children’s, she leads genetic test stewardship interventions, including insurance alignment related to genetic testing. Jessie is also a co-founder and Director of Genetic Counseling Services for PLUGS (Patient-centered Laboratory Utilization Guidance Services), a national collaboration whose mission is to improve test ordering, retrieval, interpretation and reimbursement.

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GUEST POST: The NSGC Annual Conference needs a high-grade mask mandate

by a collective of GCs concerned about COVID-19 risk at the 2022 AC

We urge the NSGC Board of Directors to change the mask recommendation for the 2022 Annual Conference (AC) to a requirement for attendees to wear high grade masks (N95, KN95, surgical). 

We encourage our fellow genetic counselors to join us in advocating for high-grade masks at the AC by signing this petition and sharing it with their colleagues. 

Below we share examples from recent conferences to demonstrate that without a masking requirement, the AC is likely to be a superspreader event and that masking requirements are indeed feasible at conferences of this type and size. We also lay out why this policy change is imperative given NSGC’s stated J.E.D.I. commitments and our profession’s responsibility to our attendees (including vendors, exhibitors, facility workers, and the press), patients, colleagues, families, the local community of Nashville, and society broadly. 

Likelihood of high level of COVID-19 transmission at events like the AC

Unfortunately, even in 2022, conferences without masks continue to be superspreader events. The Society for Academic Emergency Medicine Conference had an estimated 18-67% of its ~3000 attendees contract COVID-19 at their May 2022 conference. This conference required vaccination but not masks. A July 2022 meeting of IT developers had at least 50% of attendees test positive for COVID-19 after the conference. That meeting required both vaccination and pre-conference testing, but not masking (same as the policies proposed for the 2022 AC). This example shows that transmission rates can still be high even with the policies proposed for the AC. 

In contrast, the 2022 Academic Surgical Congress required high-grade masks (N95, KN95, surgical) and far fewer attendees contracted COVID-19. In a recent paper Silver et al. (2022) report that 1.8% of in-person attendees at this conference tested positive for COVID-19 after the meeting, a rate that is both markedly lower than the unmasked conferences mentioned above and similar to the rate among remote attendees (1.5%). It is notable that this paper came out after the Board made decisions about AC policies, which further prompts the need for re-assessment of those policies. 

NSGC staff have shared that they hope that attendees will heed the recommendation to wear masks. However, rates of masking at conferences with a recommendation as opposed to a requirement suggest that many will not, as does an informal poll in which 30% of respondents who plan to attend the AC in person said they would not wear a mask under the currently proposed policies. 

Feasibility of mask mandates

It is notable that many recent in-person medical conferences have required masks and had a high rate of masking compliance. This suggests that a mask mandate is indeed feasible and also that masking rates are higher with a mandate than a recommendation. In addition to the Academic Surgical Congress discussed above,the Heart Rhythm Society and American Academy of Neurology 2022 meetings are notable examples. Both required masking. Genetic counselors who attended these meetings report that compliance was very high and that security guards and conference staff provided cordial reminders to mask when they were already interacting with attendees, such as at entry points. This suggests that a high rate of masking can be achieved when a mask mandate is coupled with a minimal level of additional work from existing conference staff. Further, the Heart Rhythm Society registration page informed potential attendees in advance of requirements, including mandatory masking, and asked that individuals who could not meet those requirements attend remotely. Within the genetic counseling profession, the Southern California Genetic Counselors’ 2022 conference is an example of another recent meeting that required masking and had very high compliance. If these societies were able to implement a mask mandate and achieve a high level of compliance, then so can NSGC. 

Lastly, many upcoming conferences are requiring masks, most notably this includes the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting

J.E.D.I.

NSGC has made significant strides in recent years in recognizing the need for greater equity and inclusion within the society. However, opting for a mask recommendation over a mask mandate is counter to the society’s stated J.E.D.I. goals. Specifically, by not including this feasible and highly effective mitigation strategy, NSGC has rendered in-person attendance at the AC out of reach to attendees who are at high risk for COVID-19 complications, or who live with someone who is. This policy choice disproportionately harms disabled individuals. In-person attendance at the AC offers many more choices for educational talks and provides access to additional networking opportunities, pre-conference symposia, and sponsored sessions. In the same informal poll referenced above, 11.5% stated they would change from remote to in-person attendance if masks were required. 

Our collective responsibility

As both a professional society and a collective of healthcare providers and individuals, we have a responsibility to minimize the risk of transmission at our Annual Conference. So much so that one group of experts titled their article on this topic “The irony — and ignominy — of medical conferences as superspreader events.” To abide by our duties as healthcare providers and our responsibilities to our patients, we must do whatever we can to save lives and prevent long COVID-related disability by minimizing the number of attendees who bring COVID-19 home to their families, communities, clinics, and workplaces. Not taking that step would be against the values of care and respect for our patients’ welfare that are the foundation of our Code of Ethics. 

Clearer communication of rationale for policy choices and risks to attendees

Lastly, we urge the Board to provide clearer communication on COVID-19 policies for the AC, even if they do not adopt a mask mandate. Communication from NSGC to date does not provide a rationale for the chosen policies or clarity on the process for selecting those policies, nor does it communicate where the current policies may cause significant risk to attendees. The risk of attending should not be left to attendees to discern. As a profession that facilitates and is committed to informed choice, we owe it to each other to help provide accurate and up-to-date information on the risks of conference attendance, especially given that such information is not readily provided from sources most attendees would encounter. 

Signees

Colleen Caleshu

Brenden Phung

Sohnee Ahmed

Kaleigh Patton

Emma Snyder

Gina Sanchez

Breanne Prindeville

Sarina Kopinsky

Samantha Freeze

Charlene Preys

Emily Toering

Sally Rodriguez

Naomi Wagner

Meg Hager

Michelle Takemoto

Suzy Cahn

Ariel Breeze

Vickie Bacon

Julia Stone

Liz Mizerik

Natasha Berman

Catriona Hippman

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NSGC Board: With Roe Overturned, and Over a Decade Without Medicare Recognition, It’s Time For Change 

A Guest Post by Misha Rashkin et al

The Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is an historic event, and in many ways genetic counselors are in the eye of the storm. The National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) has historically remained silent on the issue of reproductive rights, citing Medicare recognition as a bipartisan issue that supersedes patients’ reproductive freedom. Though the threat of losing Roe has been clear since Brett Kavanaugh joined the Supreme Court, and all but inevitable after Justice Coney Barrett took the oath, NSGC leadership has continued to focus solely on Medicare reimbursement. After more than a decade of following this strategy, NSGC is nowhere near getting our bill passed, and now patients are losing fundamental rights. It’s time for change.

What is Next for Genetic Counselors?

  • Going forward, there will be laws proposed in many states that could regulate what genetic counselors can document or say to their patients. 
  • To enact change, NSGC leadership will need to get involved in many legislative, legal, and electoral efforts. 
  • Electoral efforts will need to focus on local elected officials like District Attorneys offices, ballot measures, and state constitutional amendments

Bottom line: It is not acceptable for NSGCs political operation to remain silent on reproductive choice. We must act on issues that impact our professional lives and the wellbeing of our patients. To remain silent is to capitulate.

What about our bill to be recognized by Medicare? 

  • Based on public records, NSGCs efforts to have Congress recognize genetic counselors as Medicare providers has been ongoing since 2007, longer than many counselors’ careers. 
  • Our bill has been introduced three times as HR 7083 in 2018, HR 3235 in 2019, and HR 2144 in 2021, and has yet to be considered by a single committee in Congress. 
  • While progress has been minimal, costs have ballooned 450% over 10 years, from $80,000 per year to $360,000 per year! 

Bottom line: Sacrificing our commitment to patient autonomy and agency is a grave ethical error for an industry that prioritizes these values. Sticking with the status quo is a failure of the leadership’s ethical and fiduciary responsibility. Board members are required to accept their fiduciary responsibility for NSGC the same as they would for their own personal finances.

What Can NSGC Do To Repair the Damage?

  • The NSGC Board should put out a Request For Proposals (RFP) requesting bids from new lobbying firms every few years, beginning now. This is standard practice for nonprofit organizations. Smith Bucklin has not been held accountable for their lack of progress. 
  • RFPs should include lobbyists who have worked to get mid-level providers recognition.
  • This process should be transparent and prioritize bids from political operatives who have:
    • Experience working with our targeted committees (Energy & Commerce, and Ways & Means in the US House) to move our legislation forward.
    • Experience working on reproductive freedom at the state and federal level. 

Bottom Line: The Board should create a process where an RFP is put out at some regular cadence, such as every three years. It’s time to hold our Director of Government Relations and lobbyists accountable. If you agree, please sign this petition to register your support for accountability, transparency and change. 

[alphabetical order]

Barbara Biesecker, PhD, MS, CGC

1989-1990 NSGC President

Jordan Brown MA, MS, CGC

2022 Chair, NSGC Public Policy Committee

Member, NSGC Reproductive Freedom, Access, and Justice Task Force

Founding Member, Genuine Collective

Elizabeth Fieg, MS, CGC

2020-2022, Public Policy Committee Member

Michelle Fox, MS, CGC

2020-2021, NSGC Director at Large

2008 Chair, Jane Engelberg Memorial Fellowship 

Shreshtha Garg, MS, CGC
2020-2021 Chair, Equity and Inclusion Implementation Committee

Carrie Haverty, MS, CGC

2022 Chair, NSGC Membership Committee

Brianne Kirkpatrick, MS, CGC

204-2017, NSGC Public Policy Committee Member

Shelby Koenig, MS, CGC

Member, NSGC Reproductive Freedom, Access, and Justice Task Force

Megan Mckenna, MS, CGC

NSGC Member since 2020

Kristen Miller, MGC, CGC

2022 Senior Co-Chair, NSGC Prenatal SIG

Ana Morales, MS, CGC

2016-2020, ABGC Board of Directors (President, 2019)

2022, NSGC Expert Media Panel

2022, NSGC Practice Guidelines Committee Member 

Shivani Nazareth, MS, CGC

2020-2021, NSGC Director at Large

2021-2022, NSGC Reproductive Freedom, Access and Justice Task Force Member

2013-2016, Public Policy Committee Member

Kate Partynski Emery, MS, CGC

NSGC Member Since 2015

Aarti Ramdaney, MS, CGC

2019-2021, NSGC Prenatal SIG Co-Chair

Misha Rashkin, MS, CGC

2018 Chair, NSGC Public Policy Committee

Hillary Rieger, MA, MS, CGC

NSGC JEDI Task Force, 2021-22 

Sally A. Rodríguez, ScM, CGC

2021-2023, NSGC Membership Committee Member

2021-2023, NSGC Justice, Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion (J.E.D.I.) Committee Member

Katie Sagaser, MS, LCGC

2020-2022 NSGC Public Policy Committee Member

2019-2020 NSGC Prenatal SIG Co-Chair

Founding Member, GENUINE Collective

Kendra Schaa, ScM, CGC

2020-2021, Chair, NSGC Access & Service Delivery Committee

2017-2020, Member, NSGC Access & Service Delivery Committee

Heather Shappell, MS, CGC

2020-2021, NSGC Director at Large

Ashley Svenson, MS, CGC

2021-2022, NSGC Reproductive Freedom, Access, and Justice Task Force Member

Elizabeth Varga, MS, CGC

2018-2019 NSGC Director at Large

2016-2017 Co-chair, Pediatric Subcommittee, Cancer SIG

2014 Chair, Nominating Committee, American Board of Genetic Counseling

Chelsea Wagner, MS, CGC

2022-Present, Prenatal SIG Co-Chair

2022-Present, NSGC Abstract Review Committee

2019-2021, NSGC Marketing and Communications Working Group

2017-2020, NSGC Membership Committee

Kate L Wilson, MS CGC

2014 Chair, NSGC Access and Service Delivery Committee

2018 Chair, NSGC Education Committee

2012 Chair, NSGC Prenatal SIG

2017 Chair, NSGC Laboratory/Industry SIG

Beth Wood Denne, MS, CGC

2019 NSGC Cares Task Force

2011 Chair, Annual Education Conference

2013-2016, ABGC Board of Directors (President, 2016)

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The Power Of Symbols: The Pedigree As A Tool of Conformity and Oppression

Pedigrees are paragons of infographics — “graphic visual representations of information, data, or knowledge intended to present information quickly and clearly.” Yup, that’s pretty much what a pedigree is. Just think of how much clinical and genetic information you can glean from scanning a pedigree for even just a few moments. Eliciting a pedigree during a counseling session is also a great way to establish rapport and trust with a patient, get a grasp on family dynamics, and gain insight into patients’ understanding of disease etiology (“I’m not very close with my father. He left when I was pretty young. I think he had leukemia but he worked in a shipyard and was exposed to all kinds of chemicals.”). The family story is often more interesting than the family history. Then there’s that appealingly simple geometry of squares/circles/diamonds/lines and the satisfying symmetry of the paternal lineage on the left and the maternal lineage on the right. Nice, neat, clinically objective, non-judgmental, and harmless, right?

Well, maybe not always so harmless and objective. Symbols can be imbued with power by the information they communicate and that power can be used to control, harm, and manipulate people and reinforce social power structures.

As I’ve written about before in this space before, pedigree nomenclature and structure reflect what Judaeo-Christian Westernized cultural values consider to be an “ideal family.” Standard pedigree structure works best for a single mating between a man and a woman, along with their respective offspring and antecedent and descendant generations. Maybe you can squeeze in a second mating for one or two individuals in the family, but after that, things get pretty messy and difficult to read.

Over the last century or so, cousin marriages have been discouraged in most Westernized countries and in some cases are illegal. Although pedigrees can incorporate an occasional consanguineous mating without becoming too unwieldy, the picture gets complicated if there are multiple inbreeding loops like those found in the many societies where cousin marriage is the norm. And as far as sex and gender go, you have two choices — square or circle, man or woman — that are dictated by an assessment of your genitalia (this will change with the latest iteration of pedigree nomenclature; see below).

The implicit cultural messages here are that you should have one life-long unrelated mate and that you are either a man or a woman, no allowances made for people who identify otherwise.

The oppressive potential of pedigrees is illustrated in the pedigrees collected by the Eugenics Record Office, which operated out of Cold Spring Harbor on New York’s Long Island in the first few decades of the 20th century. Look at the trait key used to classify people in a pedigree and it evokes a smile, an eye roll, tears,  a grimace, a forehead slap, or all of the above. Sexually immoral. Criminalistic. Wanderer. Neurotic (for those of you who like language trivia, the pointing finger symbol that is used to indicate a proband is called a manicule or, more informally, a bishop’s finger).

Pedigree Symbols Used By The Eugenics Record Office

But these labels and symbols are not just harmless historical curiosities that were the products of a few warped minds. This was the era of mandatory sterilization laws in the US and elsewhere. If one of those symbols represented you, the state had the legal right to perform surgery on you against your will to prevent you from having any(more) children. Three generations of imbeciles are enough already, and that ruling was by a liberal Supreme Court that included Louis Brandeis in the majority opinion.

In contrast to how “dysgenic” families were portrayed, pedigrees could manipulate the viewer in the other direction by omitting information of eugenically desirable families. The Darwin Family pedigree below was, for all intents and purposes, the logo of The Eugenics Education Society, headquartered in London and whose president at the time was Leonard Darwin, one of Charles Darwin’s sons. Note that virtually all of the males in the family are “Brilliant” or had “Scientific Ability” but none of the women apparently possessed these traits. More subtly, many of the dysgenic traits described in eugenically undesirable families were omitted from the Darwin pedigree – opium addiction, deafness, intellectual disabilities (Darwin’s much beloved last child, Charles Waring Darwin, likely had Down syndrome), seizures, and alcoholism. Indeed, Darwin himself was so concerned about his family history that he wrote a letter to his father asking for his advice before starting a family (Darwin’s father wrote a similar letter to his father too).

A stark illustration of the power of symbols came up in discussions about updating pedigree nomenclature among the NSGC Pedigree Standardization Task Force, of which I am a member. One of our recommendations is a gender-first nomenclature, that is, a person’s self-identified gender should dictate the symbol’s shape, not their sex assigned at birth. We also considered symbols to use for people who do not identify as either male or female. In reviewing the literature and eliciting suggestions from the genetics and other communities, some suggested using an inverted triangle for someone whose gender identity is nonbinary. However, we rejected that suggestion in favor of a diamond shape because inverted triangle badges were used in Nazi concentration camps to distinguish among the various types of prisoners, such as political prisoners, criminals, prisoner of war, “gentiles who assisted Jews,” Roma, mentally ill, or Jews (the Magen David is essentially, two triangles). The triangle that defined you could mean the difference between life and death.

                            Inverted triangles used to distinguish among the types of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.                 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_concentration_camp_badge

The potential harm of pedigree symbols looms large today now that states have taken to passing laws that criminalize abortion. Suppose that you are practicing in a state like Louisiana after a strict anti-abortion law is passed and you are taking a family history from a someone who had a pregnancy in which anencephaly was diagnosed and she managed to obtain a pregnancy termination through an underground network. If you document that pregnancy with the annotation VTOP (voluntary termination of pregnancy) below, you could potentially open her up to legal prosecution.

                                                                  Evidence of a crime in some states

 A similar outcome could arise in a states like Texas or Alabama that have banned gender-affirming treatment for children, legislation that, as far as I can tell, is often motivated by cynical politics and hate-driven willful ignorance. If you practice in these states and are consulting with a parent who has a child who identifies as female but was assigned male at birth and has undergone gender-affirming treatment such as puberty blockers, you would – under the new guidelines – depict this in the pedigree with a diamond, the annotation AMAB (Assigned Male at Birth), and perhaps further annotations about what treatment was provided. If that pedigree fell into the wrong hands, the parents and the treating physician could be charged with child abuse. And, by law, you may be required to report it to the state, just as health professionals are usually required to report any type of child abuse.

                                                                         Pedigree indicating child abuse in some states

A genetic counselor could be put in the position of either falsifying the medical record or omitting clinically critical information. Talk about a rock and a hard place.

In the idyllic past, we mostly worried about insurance companies getting their hands on pedigrees. Now we have to worry about the prosecutorial system accessing them. Absolutely nothing good will come of that. It’s possible that the judicial system may block or limit some of these laws, but I am not too hopeful at the moment.

Nothing in science and medicine is value-neutral. Everything we utilize and do in our clinical practice can be used for good and for bad and we often have no control over how it is used and abused. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that one day future genetic counselors will look at our pedigrees and other practices and pass critical judgment on us. We should strive for ethical humility amidst our righteousness.


As an added bonus for that small circle of practitioners who love pedigrees as much as I do – fellow PedHeads – you might be interested in this article I wrote long ago in a genetic galaxy far away about the history of the pedigree in genetics.

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ACMG Carrier Screening Guideline: The Hypothetical “Tier 3” Panel

This post was modified on 3/30/2022 with input presented by some DNA Exchange readers.  First – the original post did not account for the fact that ELP1 is reported out as IKBKAP by Natera, SEMA4 and Quest. Table and graph were updated to reflect this. 

While the list of labs surveyed for this post was not intended to include all labs that offer carrier screening, it has been noted since this was initially posted that Fulgent does offer a carrier screening panel based on the ACMG Tier 3 recommendation. A paragraph has been added to reflect Fulgent’s test offering.

In July 2021, the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics published a new carrier screening guideline, Screening for autosomal recessive and X-linked conditions during pregnancy and preconception: a practice resource of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG). The gist of this recommendation is that all individuals who are considering pregnancy or who are pregnant should be offered a carrier screening panel inclusive of 113 specific genes. In a prior post, Bob Resta and I shared our concerns regarding ethical issues and the ways in which this panel was designed.

With this post I have a practical question regarding implementation: How does one order a carrier screening panel of these ACMG-recommended genes when such a panel does not exist?  

A quick recap of the ACMG carrier recommendation. The guideline defines 4 tiers of carrier screening:

Carrier Screening Tiers defined in the ACMG Practice resource, Screening for autosomal recessive and X-linked conditions during pregnancy and preconception: a practice resource of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG).

The carrier frequencies utilized are based on the public database gnomAD and represent carrier frequencies for any subpopulation that makes up at least 1% of the United States total population. 

The goal of this ACMG recommendation was to define a standard panel that could be offered to all patients. The guideline recommends that all patients who are pregnant or are considering pregnancy be offered the “Tier 3” panel, and that reproductive partners may also be offered the Tier 3 panel simultaneously. This panel is inclusive of 113 genes, 86 of which were derived from the gnomAD data as having a carrier frequency of 1 in 200 or higher; 11 additional genes were  “highly represented in one or more patient populations and have potential to be underrepresented in gnomAD”; and 16 genes associated with X-linked conditions with a prevalence of 1 in 40,000 or higher.

ACMG recommends against using the Tier 1 or Tier 2 panel for any patient. Further, it states that the Tier 4 panel be reserved “for consanguineous pregnancies (second cousins or closer) and in couples where family or medical history suggests Tier 4 screening might be beneficial.”

A huge problem with this recommendation is that the Tier 3 panel, as it is described by ACMG, does not exist as an orderable test through most labs. I have surveyed several labs, and those with the biggest commercially available panels do not provide coverage for somewhere between 25 and 49 genes of the 113 that are outlined by ACMG for the Tier 3 panel.  

Analysis of carrier screening labs performed on March 24, 2022. For a full list of genes by lab, see Table below. 

Some of the labs I have highlighted in this analysis have published press releases and sent emails to their client base in enthusiastic support of these guidelines that call for expanded carrier screening, even though NONE of them actually offer what ACMG currently recommends. The Industry lobbying group for Myriad, Natera, SEMA4 and ThermoFisher, the Access to Equitable Carrier Screening Coalition “applauds American College Of Genetics And Genomics” on this new recommendation that none of these labs can currently fulfill.  

One lab, Fulgent Genetics, offers a panel that is based on the Tier 3 recommendation, along with several caveats and limitations for some of the recommended genes that have common variants that may be missed or are expected to escape detection by their platform. While the Fulgent panel includes  all 113 ACMG-recommended genes, these caveats and limitations demonstrate that sensitivity across the genes included can vary dramatically and may be low in cases where the common mutation is a trinucleotide repeat, inversion or other alteration not reliably identified through next generation sequencing.  For example, Fulgent reports including FXN analysis on their panel with the caveat that their analysis will only detect sequence variants  which account for <5% of pathogenic  variants in this gene (the vast majority of FXN pathogenic variants  are due to GAA repeat expansion.)

Perhaps Fulgent along with other labs that are working to develop a panel that meets the ACMG requirements and will be able to identify most pathogenic variants in the 113 gene set.  It may be difficult to do this and keep the cost of testing down as there are technical challenges to assessing some of the genes that ACMG recommends. For example, the most common mutation in the F8 gene is a gene inversion. With PLP1 the most common mutation is a gene duplication. Rearrangements are common with the OCA2 gene. These technical variations present a challenge to labs as they expand their carrier screening panels. From the marketing perspective, adding 50 genes to their currently existing platform may seem more impressive than adding a small handful of more technically difficult ACMG-recommended genes.

Do obstetrical care providers recognize that when they are ordering an expanded panel that it may include hundreds of genes that are not recommended while missing several genes that are part of this ACMG-produced panel? What does this mean for our liability as providers when we cannot order a test that is recommended by our professional society? 

In a future post I plan to focus on carrier screening for cystic fibrosis and some of the harm seen from reporting practices on expanded carrier screening. But for now I would like to reflect back to the time when we first considered screening for cystic fibrosis, the rollout of which was not without challenges. Before guidelines were issued by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American College of Medical Genetics, there was significant preparation for implementation. Care was taken to determine whether we knew that the variants included on the CFTR panel cause disease. We thought we were clear about this but even with great scrutiny, the original 25 mutation panel included a variant that we eventually learned did not cause disease. There were standards written for laboratories regarding how to do the testing and what should be included in the report. There were educational resources developed for patients and providers. There appears to be much less care and preparation with these current guidelines in spite of the recommendations for testing for many more as well as increasingly complex conditions.

In today’s world of carrier screening, we see both the 113 gene Tier 3 panel recommended by the ACMG as well as commercial laboratories in constant competition to expand the size of their carrier panels. Yes, labs are expanding their genetic carrier screening offerings, but it does not appear (regardless of their marketing materials) that the recommendations from ACMG are the reason why. Even some of the biggest panels available don’t include 22-43% of the genes recommended by the ACMG while providing coverage for numerous genes that are not included in the recommendation. Data regarding performance characteristics of screening for many of these genes both within and beyond the panel are lacking. As a result, pre and post test counseling our patients regarding carrier screening and the downstream challenges are just going to become increasingly more complex.  

ACMG Tier 3 Panel
Labcorp / Integrated Inheritest® 500 PLUS Panel
SEMA4 Expanded Carrier Screen (502 Genes)
Natera Horizon™ 421
Myriad Foresight®
Invitae Comprehensive Carrier Screen
Quest QHerit(R) Extended
ABCA3
ABCC8
ABCD1
ACADM
ACADVL
ACAT1
AFF2
AGA
AGXT
AHI1
AIRE
ALDOB
ALPL
ANO10
ARSA
ARX
ASL
ASPA
ATP7b
BBS1
BBS2
BCKDHB
BLM
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As of March 23, 2022

Quest Diagnostics QHerit™ Extended

Myriad Foresight® Carrier ScreenUniversal Panel

Invitae Comprehensive Carrier Screen

Labcorp / IntegratedInheritest® 500 PLUS Panel

SEMA4 Expanded Carrier Screen (502 Genes)

Natera Horizon 421 (from printed materials provided by Natera)

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The Questions We Should Really Be Asking After Reading the NY Times Article About Prenatal cfDNA Screening For Microdeletions

As the genetic counseling world knows all too well, the New York Times recently published a story about prenatal cfDNA screening for chromosomal microdeletion syndromes. The gist of the article is that screening for microdeletions has a high number of false positives that produce significant patient anxiety and, in a very small number of cases, patients have elected to terminate a pregnancy before confirmatory diagnostic testing. The Times piece generated 1100+ comments on its site, including many from genetic counselors and physicians, not to mention vitriolic sturm und drang on various social media.

Clearly the article touched a collective genetic counselor nerve — a lot of the reaction has been more reflexive than reflective. Which is kind of surprising, considering that cfDNA for microdeletions is a so-so screen for a handful of rare conditions that genetic counselors have not widely agreed should be included on these tests.

Most of the criticism centered on the article not always making a clear and consistent technical distinction between a screaming test, er, uh, I mean, a screening test (which cfNDA is) and a diagnostic test (which cfDNA is not). This confusion has been an ongoing problem since the early to mid-1980s when AFP screening for neural tube defects — and maternal anxiety over testing — was first working its way into clinical practice (I remember one of my patients back then referring to AFP as “alpha-fucking protein”). Forty years later, and the anxiety and misunderstanding has not improved much.

Some of those criticisms are fair, particularly when the article describes cfDNA results as being “wrong” or “inaccurate.” To the specialist, the term false positive has a very specific definition,* and hence the source of the reaction to the article. But from a semantics standpoint, doesn’t the word false in false positive imply wrong? You can also think of calling a result “wrong” as an example of the tried and true counseling strategy of reframing, i.e. “Well, Jane, your test result actually says that there is more than an 80-90% chance your baby does not have a microdeletion.”

In my opinion the article otherwise does a decent job of highlighting the statistical complexities of cfDNA. The accompanying Figures are helpful in explaining what is essentially the positive predictive value of the tests. In fact, I think the graphics are better than the explanations and graphics on many of the testing laboratories’ websites. Many of these websites are even guiltier of muddling the differences between screening and diagnostic tests, and labs really should know better. It’s no wonder that patients might be confused and anxious when they read that a test is “highly accurate,” “an alternative to amniocentesis or CVS,” and can be assured of a “healthy baby” when results are normal. To be fair, some of the websites also address the distinctions between screening tests and diagnostic tests, but only if you click down into the rabbit warren of information.

I think most of the criticism by genetic counselors glosses over more important and fundamental questions that should be the focus of critiques of prenatal testing and our reaction to the Times piece (here I am defining prenatal testing as including screening and diagnosis). These critical questions include:

• Should we test for any condition prenatally? This is an ethically and for some a religiously complex question but it underlies all of the subsequent questions.

• If there is broad agreement that prenatal testing should be available, then what is its purpose? Realistically, with a few exceptions, is there any purpose beyond selective termination? While termination is an important option and benefit of the test for some, it’s not a course of action that all parents will choose. Some parents might decide to have prenatal testing for “preparation” but as I have argued elsewhere there is minimal data saying one way or another whether prenatal knowledge of a condition helps babies or their families, medically, emotionally, or developmentally (thought at least one study is beginning to address this shortcoming). If patients are going to be put through the emotional ringer of prenatal testing, we should be able to provide solid data on whether prenatal knowledge of a condition provides benefits in addition to the option of termination.

• What criteria should be used in determining which conditions should be subject to prenatal testing? Even if every genetic condition could be detected prenatally (and we might actually get close to that point one day), it wouldn’t make sense to test for many of them. Clinically rational and ethically acceptable criteria need to be developed to guide the selection of conditions to consider for prenatal testing.

• Who decides which conditions are screen-worthy? As Ilana Löwy and others have noted, commercial labs often spearhead this choice but decisions are reinforced and supported by the medical and genetics communities that order the testing. If no one ordered a test, labs wouldn’t offer it. As Liza Minelli, Joel Grey, and Scarface remind us, money makes the world go around. Are we screening for some conditions primarily because we can screen for them and labs offer it? What about input from patients, the public, multiple medical specialties, ethicists, social scientists, people with disabilities, and others?

• Is widespread screening for rare conditions the best use of laboratory and genetic counseling resources? Follow up of screen positive results consumes a significant amount of genetic counselor time and energy, to say nothing of patients’ anxiety and health care costs. Should these resources be focused on more pressing conditions?

• Many jobs in the genetics sector — labs and clinical providers — are dependent on the existence of genetic testing. Labs make their living off of testing but so do many genetic counselors working in clinics. While genetic counselors are not trying to push testing on patients, many genetic counseling jobs depend on the availability of genetic testing, either helping patients decide whether to have a test or explaining results to them once the testing has been completed. For better and worse, the genetic counseling profession has intimately identified itself with genetic testing. Clinics would employ far fewer prenatal, cancer, cardiogenetics, and other specialty genetic counseling jobs if there were not so many genetic tests. Think about how many clinical positions would evaporate if prenatal testing — or, really, almost any genetic testing — disappeared tomorrow. Some jobs would remain, for sure. But the demand for genetic counseling would likely drop off significantly if fewer tests were available. How much does this conflict of interest influence genetic counselors’ attitudes toward, and willingness to adopt, genetic tests, and how much does it subtly and subconsciously influence some of the strong reaction to the Times article?

• First and foremost, a patient’s decision to undergo — or not — prenatal testing should be preceded by a soul-searching exploration with partners and care providers about what parents want out of their children and addressing parental fears of disability, along with ethical and spiritual reflection. The decision requires more emotional expertise than numerical expertise. Should we be offering tests to all pregnant women that require them to master abstruse statistical knowledge in order to decide about whether to pursue testing? Even in a (unrealistic) world where all pregnant patients meet with a genetic counselor prior to testing and everything was explained in excruciating detail, many patients will misinterpret, forget, and misunderstand most of the technical information about false positives, false negatives, and distinctions between diagnostic tests and screening tests. What is the best way for patients to make medically and emotionally informed decisions? Laboratory website are less than ideal sources of information. Websites are essentially marketing tools, and marketing is antithetical to nondirectiveness. Chatbots alone don’t cut it for this purpose, although they could have an ancillary role.

• What message does it send to people with disabilities, their families, and their advocates if we continually add, seemingly willy-nilly, more and more genetic conditions to the prenatal testing list, especially, as I noted above, if they obtain no tangible benefit from testing? More testing readily begets further routinization of testing. And when you start testing lots of pregnancies for lots of conditions, you start creeping further into eugenic territory.

There are no easy solutions to any of these questions. Some may very well prove to be unanswerable and some parties will remain dissatisfied if we do manage to come up with some answers. It will involve vigorous and at times contentious debates among multiple viewpoints, and lots of people convinced that they are so damned right and why the hell can’t everybody else see that? But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be taking on the challenge. We may wind up with less than perfect answers, but they will be better than what we are doing now. The practice of genetic counseling demands it and patients deserve no less.

__________________________________________________________________

*- Another source of confusion here is the distinction between the false positive rate and a false positive result. The false positive rate is the number of pregnancies that do not have a condition but test positive. Thus, a lab can accurately claim that cfDNA for microdeletions has a false positive rate below 1%. You can see why a patient with a positive result might misinterpret that to mean there is over a 99% chance that her baby does indeed have a microdeletion. On the other hand, a false positive result is one specific patient’s test result which incorrectly indicates that a condition is present. Thus a patient who has a positive microdeletion result has an 80-90% chance that her baby does not have a microdeletion. Lord have mercy! You can see why pregnant patients might be confused. Then try to sort through all that while experiencing the joys of hyperemesis, or if you are a non-English speaking immigrant from a village in Central America working through an interpreter, or if you are also trying to figure out at about the same time the meaning of your rubella result, your HIV status, your nuchal thickness scan, and the results of your carrier testing.

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FDA Approval of Voxzogo – An Unmet Medical Need?

Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced approval of Voxzogo (vosoritide), a drug developed by BioMarin for the purpose of increasing growth in children with achondroplasia. The drug is approved for children five years of age and older who have achondroplasia and open epiphyses, and is administered by daily injection. Voxzogo was approved by the European Commission (EC) in August of this year and marketing authorization reviews are currently in process in Japan, Brazil, and Australia.

This drug was developed specifically to target the effects of the FGFR3 mutation that causes the fibroblast growth factor receptor 3 to be overly active in people with achondroplasia, which prevents normal bone growth. The FDA cited this trial as the reason for the approval: a year-long, double-blind randomized trial (RTC) that showed an increase in growth (a mean of 1.57cm per year) in participants who received the drug. While some suggest that other health complications may be ameliorated by the use of vosoritide, that is purely speculation at this point. The FDA approval was based on the trial’s primary endpoint, “change from baseline of annualized growth velocity.”

The study reports:

“This study is limited in that direct evaluation of the effect of vosoritide treatment on final adult height and how this relates to functionality, quality of life, and activities of daily living in people with achondroplasia cannot be evaluated at this time. In addition, whether treatment with vosoritide will ameliorate the medical complications associated with achondroplasia and decrease the need for surgical interventions is unknown.”

Vosoritide was given the Priority Review designation by the FDA meaning that the review will be completed within 6 months. According to the FDA website, the priority review designation exists to “direct overall attention and resources to the evaluation of applications for drugs that, if approved, would be significant improvements in the safety or effectiveness of the treatment, diagnosis, or prevention of serious conditions when compared to standard applications.”

While a spokesperson from the FDA proclaims that this approval “fulfills an unmet medical need for more than 10,000 children in the United States”, this drug is controversial among people living with achondroplasia and other types of dwarfism. Many believe that the approval of this drug based on the ability to only increase growth is centered on corporate interests to bring a high-cost commercial drug to market without evidence that health outcomes are improved and that this approval represents deep prejudice against people of short stature. 

Vosoritide was approved under the Accelerated Approval Program, which arose from the 21st Century Cures Act, signed into law in 2016. This accelerated approval program lowers the bar for what evidence is required for FDA to approve drugs that treat serious conditions, and that fill an unmet medical need based on a surrogate endpoint. Proponents of this accelerated program say that it will help bring important treatments to patients faster. Many have expressed concern though, that these speedy approvals are putting patients at greater risk of harm given that the long term safety of these drugs is not known. With the accelerated approval process, the FDA can require additional post-approval studies. In the case of vosoritide, the approval is conditional on post-marketing study that will assess final adult height. This means that the primary justification for the drugs approval has always been increased height (not reduction in health concerns associated with achondroplasia) and that BioMarin will be able to profit off the sale of vosoritide for many years before we are certain that the drug actually increases final adult height.  

An important question up for debate here is whether a drug’s ability to increase the height of people with achondroplasia by 6-8 inches is meeting an unmet medical need. Considering the potential health effects secondary to the bone growth changes in achondroplasia such as sleep apnea and spinal compression, we won’t likely have the answer to that for some time.

Is short stature in and of itself a “serious condition” or “unmet medical need”? Maybe the answer to that question depends on whether you are viewing it through a medical model of disability lens or a social model. The medical model would hold that the condition of the person causes disability and that medicine should aim to “fix” the condition of the person. The social model would hold that it is systemic barriers in society and discriminatory views that cause disability – it is the condition of our society that needs fixing.

There is reasonable concern that the FDA’s enthusiastic support to celebrate the approval of this expensive drug to increase height can only further support discriminatory views that medical providers have had towards people with disabilities by validating that short stature in and of itself is a medical problem that needs a cure. 

The CEO of BioMarin, Jean-Jacques Bienaimé, seems to have a medical model perspective on achondroplasia judging by this quote: “It’s the difference between being able to drive a car or not, reaching stuff in closets, being able to take care of your hygiene. It would make a huge difference for those patients. There’s no question about it.”  

Daily injection of this drug is not necessary to allow people with achondroplasia to drive a car, reach the items they need, or take care of their own hygiene. Of course people with achondroplasia perform these activities all the time with assistive devices and inclusive design. This statement from BioMarin’s CEO may represent ignorance about the capabilities of someone with achondroplasia or, perhaps more likely, may be a misrepresentation to hype the importance of vosoritide.  

The stakes are high for BioMarin here. The drug is priced at $320,000 per year for the treatment, and the stock value surged with news of the FDA approval of what is being called the company’s new blockbuster product. FDA approval is linked to insurance coverage for drugs. Medicaid and Medicaid have very limited ability to decline drug coverage for FDA-approved drugs. Private insurers also must cover FDA approved drugs, although there may be more financial burden put on patients with cost-sharing arrangements. 

I have been thinking a lot about this FDA approval and the bigger system we are now in with so much interest (and money) in drug development for rare disease. There is a lot to be hopeful about for people living with rare conditions, but pervasive discriminatory views against disability in combination with massive corporate interest to rush therapeutics to market is of great concern. 

The use of vosoritide and similar drugs is likely to expand in the years to come. Studies are currently underway looking at vosoritide use in infants, and also the use of vosoritide for children with other genetic conditions that cause short stature. I would imagine fetal therapy trials may not be long in the future. The increase in therapeutics for genetic conditions will of course also fuel the diagnostic industry. I predict that as the approval of vosoritide therapies expands to younger ages, genetic testing companies will use this as a selling point for testing. Companies such as Natera and Baylor Genetics have been promoting a prenatal cfDNA test that screens for achondroplasia and other single gene conditions, and the companies have been trying to make the case that this test could result in better outcomes for families by learning about a diagnosis earlier. Having a treatment that could be started in infancy or even earlier could help make this case. 

When news of this FDA approval broke, I first learned about it on this twitter thread by Dr. Joseph Stromondo, professor of Bioethics and Disability Studies at San Diego State University. In it he says, “Did anyone ever doubt this outcome, though? There is never a moment any of us leaves our house that we aren’t greeted with ridicule and hostility. Our bodies are regarded as public spectacle just for existing in the world. How could this outcome be any different? Of course someone would find a way to profit off of these stigmas and the fears they produce in average height parents. This was inevitable. I think the more critical questions surround our response to the drug, as a community of dwarf adults and allies. What do we do now?” He concludes, “we need to find new ways to live with dwarf pride and help families see what is possible for their LP [Little People] kids. We need to come together and focus on creating a space that celebrates our lives and bodies in an otherwise hostile world.”

The development of the drug, and now the FDA approval of vosoritide has been controversial among people with achondroplasia. While some see the development of these drugs as an attack on their very existence, others are celebrating the approval with hope of the possibility of health benefits that result from use of the drug. 

Little People of America (LPA), a nonprofit support organization for people with dwarfism and their families, seems to be trying to navigate the differing viewpoints on drug development. From this FAQ on LPA and Pharmaceutical Company Engagement they state, “We have long celebrated dwarfism as a valuable contribution to human diversity. LPA also values diversity within our own community and respects the choices of its members regarding medical intervention. While LPA has never actively promoted medical research aimed at treating or curing dwarfism, LPA is not opposed to medical research if it holds the potential to improve quality of life by treating symptoms that can range from uncomfortable to lethal.” More recently in a position statement on the FDA approval of vosoritide, the LPA states that “they strongly believe that a focus on growth velocity is a search for a pharmaceutical solution for a societal problem. We want to reframe priorities in research to the most meaningful ones for our members, such as reducing spinal stenosis, sleep apnea, and the need for corrective surgeries, as well as supporting other improvements in quality of life.”

The availability of vosoritide will present parents with a decision that will be difficult for many. How do you make a choice about treatment when the potential for health benefit and the possibility of risk are impossible to quantify? While people who themselves have achondroplasia have differing views on vosoritide, it is fair to say that people with lived experience will likely have more background information from which to draw on to make a decision about whether to consent to treatment for their children with achondroplasia. While I can imagine there will be enormous pressure towards use of the treatment by healthcare providers, with most babies with achondroplasia being born to parents of typical stature, they may not even be presented with the consideration that declining the treatment as a reasonable option.

Pharmaceutical companies that profit from drug sales (and also those companies that make the tests that diagnose the conditions) have an interest in selling their products. That is the role of a company, and their primary duty is to their shareholders: to profit on products they produce. These priorities are not unexpected, and the current regulatory framework encourages it. It is expected that the information coming from BioMarin and their partners (who will also profit from this endeavor) will highlight the positive, hopeful aspects of the drug and downplay the uncertainty and potential risks. We can expect to see mass marketing of this drug that promises hope of more healthy futures for people with achondroplasia, even though we don’t yet have proof that this is the case. BioMarin projects $1 billion per year at its commercial peak in sales from vosoritide. Their chief commercial officer, Jeff Ajer recently stated that the company has teams “in place and well-prepared for what could be BioMarin’s largest brand yet.” It is likely that the perspectives and voices of those with concerns about vosoritide will be drowned out by the mountains of money that will be used to promote these drugs. 

As genetic counselors we are often the ones who will be sharing information about what life with a genetic condition could look like for a family who is hearing of a diagnosis for the first time. As new medications targeting genetic conditions are developed, we will be at the forefront of supporting our patients in navigating information about new treatments. With this privilege, we also have a tremendous responsibility. It is crucial that we are clear and honest about the limitations and unknowns. I hope all of us will take great care in evaluating the complexities of new and emerging treatments. I hope we will critically evaluate the sources of the information we are sharing with our patients. I hope we will listen to the critiques and concerns from people with lived experiences with the conditions that we are counseling our patients about. We will better serve all of our patients when we are prepared for discussions about the ethical debates surrounding treatment and people with disabilities as a historically marginalized population. 

As we consider the growing options families will have to face when considering whether or not to treat their children with new pharmaceuticals, for which the long term outcomes are still unknown, I hope that we will check our own biases and do our best to provide a nuanced assessment of the options and the concerns. And in balancing the messaging that may be coming from the big money that drives so much of this, I hope we will also seek out and share perspectives from people whose voices may be harder to hear amongst the hype.

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