The past decade has seen an evolution in the way that new genetic tests become incorporated into clinical practice. Historically, genetic tests such as amniocentesis, CVS, AFP screening, newborn screening, and ethnic-based carrier screening were introduced after undergoing government-funded studies conducted by academic and clinical institutions. This research was typically supplemented by exploration of the ethical and socio-economic issues generated by new technologies and engaging the principal players in the at-risk community in open discussion. This may have resulted in a slower clinical integration of novel technologies but the net result was better patient care because the technology’s strengths, limits, and ethical and socio-economic implications were more clearly defined before the testing was offered routinely. Not to say that this approach was perfect. Recall the problems that arose when sickle cell carrier screening was introduced only to become entangled in the thorn-bush of racial politics and racial history.
Commercial interests played less of a role in such decisions in part because the tests generated lower profits due to their labor-intensiveness (think about the time spent in counting chromosomes and hand cutting and pasting karyotypes or running Southern blots), had limited target populations due to the rarity of most genetic disorders, and could be costly. There just weren’t that many large-scale genetic testing labs out there.
Now, however, genetic testing is cheaper, more profitable, less labor-intensive, and has a wider proposed target population – every pregnant woman, many people with cancer or who are at hereditary risk (maybe only 10% of breast cancer patients are appropriate candidates for hereditary testing but most of those patients have a lot of relatives), every woman, and, as with the aim of some direct to consumer (DTC) tests, everyone. Genetic labs pop up left and right, merge, expand, are bought out, and otherwise engage in business. Twenty years ago, trying to find a lab to run a genetic test could involve hours of detective work and secret word of mouth sources. Now labs are knocking on our doors cajoling and pleading for our patients’ samples. While most labs are deeply concerned about patients and are well-intentioned, they are also equally concerned about profits. Money-making, after all, is why businesses exist so it is no surprise that labs have started to take a more active role in introducing new genetic tests. This is not a phenomenon peculiar to genetics. It has been going on in medical care for decades, and genetics is just starting to catch up. It is also reflective of the growing trend in the health care industry to refer to patients as consumers of medical care and to implement customer service based patient care models.
Several genetic tests come to mind here – expanded carrier screening, offering noninvasive prenatal testing (NIPT*) to low risk pregnant women, multigene cancer panels, and SNP-based DTC testing. These tests worked their way into patient care after aggressive sales tactics and questionable advertising claims helped amplify the demand. This was further driven by competition between clinics to offer the latest and greatest tests to their patients, the general eagerness of genetic counselors to seek genetic answers for their patients, and patient word-of-mouth networks. About the only counter-balance has been a reluctance on the part of health insurers to cover new and unproven testing. Most of my patients want that new genetic test but only if their insurance company covers it, although low-cost labs like Color Genomics are challenging this limitation.
To some degree, patients can benefit from these tests but not necessarily to the extent that one might think. 23andMe states that their product should not be used for clinical decision-making – at least for now – while at the same time offering “wellness reports” and “genetic snapshots of your health.” This sounds to me like clever ad copy to deflect regulatory concerns about health claims while at the same time suggesting that the product is an important aspect of everyone’s medical care. Supporters of expanded carrier screening acknowledge its limitations in terms of studies on net health benefits and cost effectiveness but still offer the test routinely and subtly suggest that the test is standard when they claim that they work directly with a network of over 6,000 health care professionals. NIPT may soon become an appropriate test for all pregnant women, but this conclusion should be driven by independent studies conducted outside of the commercial sector. Multigene cancer panels have shown some benefits, but not nearly as much as many clinicians had hoped for.
I am grateful for the valuable contributions that labs have made to patient care. Quicker turn around times, incredible help with verifying insurance coverage, and highly knowledgeable genetic counseling staff who happily share time and considerable expertise in interpreting complicated results. 23andMe provides far better patient education materials than any single genetic counselor or clinical institution or professional organization could ever hope to create. And 23andMe was several steps ahead of everyone in facilitating patient connections to researchers and each other as well as when the company made raw data available to consumers. I never anticipated that patients would have wanted such level of detail. Along those lines, note the recent complaint filed wit the Office of Civil Rights against Myriad in which several patients assert that their HIPAA rights were violated because they claimed that Myriad would not share all of the genetic variants that were detected, including those that are considered benign or clinically insignificant. Clearly I am still time-stuck in the era when couples were ecstatic to receive a karyotype of their unborn baby and I can’t remember a single patient requesting records of all their amniotic fluid metaphase spreads and cell counts.
Of course, introducing new tests before they are ready for prime time is just part and parcel of living in a market driven society. The context is much larger than the genetics niche or even medical care in general. Labs and competitive clinics should not be faulted for engaging in behavior that is widely condoned elsewhere. Nor should all blame be placed squarely on the shoulders of labs. Everyone needs to be engaged in this process. It is not just the buck dancer’s choice, my friend. Labs can put the brakes on new tests a bit. Clinicians and labs need to form better relationships while tests are in development. Labs need to step back while independently funded research verifies claims of accuracy. Governments need to step up funding for such research. Clinics need to fend off marketing pressures to prematurely offer the newest tests to patients. Communities need to be involved in the process. We all need to work harder to dispel the myth that genetics is destiny and that DNA is the blueprint for our humanity. Labs need to be fully transparent with their data even if it means sacrificing some basic business principles of corporate secrecy.
The explosive growth of lab positions for patient-focused genetic counselors – roughly 20% of genetic counselors are employed by labs, according to the 2016 Professional Status Survey of the National Society of Genetic Counselors – can help implement a wiser policy on test development and introduction into medical care. Of course, as I have mentioned previously (ad nauseam, according to some) genetic counselors will need better training to navigate the murky, complex waters of conflict of interest.
Labs, clinicians, and patients need to recognize that market forces don’t have to be the only engine that drives policies on test development and introduction into clinical practice. We are talking peoples’ lives here, not trying to outmaneuver Pepsico’s Cheetos in the market niche for snacks that you can’t seem to stop eating, even when your hands and mouth turn that peculiarly unnatural orange color (did you know that there are 21 different types of Cheetos on the market? Cheetos Sweetos, however, has been discontinued.). Innovation can be wonderful, exciting, and improve medical care. Let’s just do it wisely.
- – actually it would be more accurate to say that the P in NIPT stands for placenta. It is not really cell free fetal DNA; it’s cell free placental DNA.