Author Archives: Robert Resta

What Is Genetic Counseling?

Until recently, I have felt pretty comfortable calling myself a genetic counselor. I have a graduate degree in genetic counseling, passed a long and difficult certification exam, and I am licensed by the great state of Washington to practice genetic counseling. It’s on my business card, the directory of my office building, and it is my official job title. I have been providing genetic counseling to patients for 33 years. I had not lost a wink of sleep worrying over what to call myself until about two years ago when I started to develop a nagging identity crisis when, on this very web site, my fellow DNA Ex’er Allie Janson Hazell suggested that maybe it is time to re-think if we should be calling ourselves genetic counselors. It was a minor itch at first. But now it’s grown into a persistent problem that I can’t stop trying to scratch, like the mysterious treatment-resistant, psychologically rooted foot disease that afflicted the John Turturro character in the recent HBO mini-series The Night Of.

But let me pose the question differently than Allie did. Why give up a good and beloved name? And I don’t even want to begin to think about the bureaucratic nightmare of rewriting state licensure laws. Instead, maybe, just maybe, it is time to debate whether we should redefine genetic counseling and the genetic counselor’s scope of practice. After all, genetic counseling is what genetic counselors do. If many of the daily activities of genetic counselors are not captured by the current definition of genetic counseling, then perhaps it is time to rethink it.

I acknowledge some personal resistance and intellectual conflict of interest – fellow DNA Ex’er Michelle Strecker and I were part of the National Society of Genetic Counseling Task Force that wrote the modern definition of genetic counseling in 2oo5 and published in 2006 (the first formal definition was published by the American Society of Human Genetics in 1975 ):

Genetic counseling is the process of helping people understand and adapt to the medical, psychological and familial implications of genetic contributions to disease. This process integrates the following:

• Interpretation of family and medical histories to assess the chance of disease occurrence or recurrence.

• Education about inheritance, testing, management, prevention, resources and research.

• Counseling to promote informed choices and adaptation to the risk or condition.



I like that definition, with its integration of clinical, educational, and, most critically, psychological aspects of genetic counseling. I am not sure I want to see it relegated to a historical footnote. Paradoxically, it could be that I am subconsciously trying to unconvince myself about the need for a new definition as much I am trying to convince the blog’s readership that it is time to consider updating it.

But I have to admit that maybe the modern definition is not so modern anymore. Genetic testing has become, in some instances, downright cheap. Everybody and their cousins are offering genetic testing. You can even obtain genetic testing, for all intents and purposes, without the involvement of a physician, genetic counselor, or any other health care provider. Roughly one in five genetic counselors works in a laboratory setting. Genetic counselors work as test interpreters, policy advisors, genetic ancestry specialists, insurance advisers, laboratory managers, account managers, sales staff, mutation database curators, laboratory liaisons, report signers, educators, and researchers. There are probably genetic counselors who are performing activities that I can’t even think of or grasp. Although for now we are still largely anchored in the clinic, we are drifting on a professional tide away from it. The definition probably still reflects the activities of many genetic counselors, but it also may not capture what a lot of genetic counselors do in their practice.

Here is the scope of practice for genetic counselors from the website of the National Society of Genetic Counselors (a more detailed listing of genetic counseling competencies can be found at the Accreditation Council For Genetic Counseling):

Genetic Counselor Scope of Practice:

a) obtain and evaluate individual, family, and medical histories to determine genetic risk for genetic/medical conditions and diseases in a patient, his/her offspring, and other family members;

b) discuss the features, natural history, means of diagnosis, genetic and environmental factors, and management of risk for genetic/medical conditions and diseases;

c) identify and coordinate genetic laboratory tests and other diagnostic studies as appropriate for the genetic assessment;

d) integrate genetic laboratory test results and other diagnostic studies with personal and family medical history to assess and communicate risk factors for genetic/medical conditions and diseases;

e) explain the clinical implications of genetic laboratory tests and other diagnostic studies and their results;

f) evaluate the client’s or family’s responses to the condition or risk of recurrence and provide client-centered counseling and anticipatory guidance;

g) identify and utilize community resources that provide medical, educational, financial, and psychosocial support and advocacy; and

h) provide written documentation of medical, genetic, and counseling information for families and health care professionals.

Some of the core questions and issues are, as I see them:

  1. Do the definition of genetic counseling and the scope of practice accurately reflect what goes on in clinics and in other work settings?
  2. Should the definition be broadened such that the very act of genetic counseling incorporates some of the newer activities of genetic counselors? This would suggest that the definition of genetic counseling could include some practices that are not involved with direct patient interaction.
  3. Is the definition still adequate but the scope of practice needs to be reworked? Or is the scope of practice adequate but the definition needs some sprucing up?
  4. How do we not lose sight of the psychological component to genetic counseling?
  5. Distinguishing between genetic counselors (roughly equal to the scope of practice) and genetic counseling (roughly equal to the definition).
  6. Remembering that genetic counseling ≠ genetic testing.
  7. Any definition will have an implicit ethos that needs to be carefully considered. The current definition is clearly centered on the psychological and physical well-being of patients.

Perhaps it is time to create another task force to address these questions and issues. I second Allie Janson Hazell’s suggestion that any such group should be international in scope; North America does not have a monopoly on genetic counseling. Of course, that could lead to an ungodly large committee; Resta’s Rule Of Committees is that a committee’s effectiveness is inversely proportional to its size. Decades of experience have taught me that the maximal effective committee size is five (no, I did not arrive at that number by a rigorous scientific process; it’s just a natural fact revealed to me in a trance one day).

I suggest a tiered process. A small task force, ideally international, investigates these questions and issues, and if the definition and/or scope of practice are found wanting, then they draft a new definition and/or scope of practice. This would then be passed on to a larger committee consisting of several representatives of the major international genetic counseling organizations, who could then choose whether to pass it on to their larger membership for comment.

The task force should include a clinical person, a lab person, and two or three other genetic counselor specialties. Grizzled veterans like me should be kept off this committee. We may unknowingly be too caught up in the old vision, too self-convinced that dammit, we do genetic counseling the right way. This project needs counselors who are early mid-career to late mid-career, the group who are the natural successors to us silverbacks, ancient shamans, and village elder wise women.

The scope of practice does not have to be particularly terse. But the definition should not be too wordy; think of how convoluted and awkward the old ASHG genetic counseling definition was. The current definition is about the right length, and, practically speaking, the definition can stand on the first sentence alone without the bullet points below it. I think that it is a tough act to follow, but sometimes the show must go on.

Oh, and while they are at it, they really should consider changing the wording to the more grammatically correct genetics counselor and genetics counseling. And let me interject another curmudgeonly opinion. I think that there are valid points made by both sides of the “Are they patients or are they clients?” debate, and I personally go back and forth freely. But I pray to God that we never use the phrase “consumers of genomic medicine.” I don’t care what you tell me about the business side of genetics and medicine; we should never label people as primarily income generating entities.

What do the Good Readers of The DNA Exchange think about this? Complete the very unscientific poll below, and share your thoughts in the Comments section.

The NSGC Annual Education Conference – only 2 weeks away – will be an ideal venue to further this discussion. And speaking of the AEC, note the announcement just below the poll about an opportunity to meet some of your favorite DNA Exchange bloggers at the upcoming Annual Education Conference in Seattle.



GCs Got Talent! A Genetic Counseling Talent Show/Benefit For The Genetic Support Foundation At The NSGC Annual Education Conference in Seattle Friday, September 30 at 8:00 PM

An Evening of Music, Comedy, Dance, Storytelling, Arts and Crafts As Performed By Our Very Own Genetic Counseling Colleagues

Meet Some of Your Favorite DNA Exchange Bloggers, Judges Laura Hercher & Michelle Strecker, And The Evening’s Emcee, Yours Truly, Kool Papa Bob!



 Illustrations by genetic counselor Dena Goldberg – “Dena DNA

Do you have a good story to tell or a talent to put on display? We would love to hear from you. There are still a few slots available. Story tellers and performers should email to learn more.


For more information about the event, and ticketing, visit

1 Comment

Filed under Robert Resta

Guest Post: Finding Margaret, Finding Myself – How My Search For My Grandmother Led To New Ways to Use My Genetic Counseling Skills

by Beth Balkite

Beth Balkite is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College program in Human Genetics and has been a certified genetic counselor for over 30 years. Her career has been one of firsts: the first genetic counselor to work in a community hospital, one of the first to work in industry, the first executive director of American Board of Genetic Counseling, and the first Interim Director of a genetic counseling program. She is currently an emeritus member of the National Society of Genetic Counselors, and a part-time educator in genetics and genetic genealogy.

Two years ago I became one of 4 million people who have sent a saliva sample to a direct to consumer (DTC) genetic ancestry testing company. In fact, I tested at three: Ancestry, 23andMe, and Family Tree. My ethnicity results were similar from all three, but because the companies each use a unique Ilumina chip, the percentages of each ethnic group were slightly different. 23andMe was the most informative. I delved into genetic genealogy testing to help me learn more about my family after I drew my own three-generation pedigree one day and soon realized I could not get very far. My mother has some dementia and my father and his one sibling died years ago so I had no one to interview. I could draw some of the circles and squares for the maternal side of my family, but my father’s side was nearly blank. He was a very reserved person and only spoke sadly about his mother dying when he was young. I had always been told his ancestors were German and that my mother’s were Irish.

Imagine my surprise when my results indicated I was 47% British! Not only that, I also had many DNA “matches,” first through fourth cousins I never knew about. Over time I contacted some of them, and a first cousin once removed had information about my paternal grandmother Margaret. With her name, I eventually obtained her death certificate and learned she died of an infection in 1921, when my father was only 4 years old (I had been told she died in the flu epidemic of 1918). She was English/Scottish and came from a very large family. I have learned of enough relatives to enable me to draw a four-generation pedigree on both sides of the family.

Click to enlarge

Balkite Graphic 2


I have since had my mother’s and my brother’s DNA tested—with their consent, of course. Using third-party tools, such as GEDMatch and various chromosome browsers, I have found segments we share with each other as well as with some newly discovered relatives, giving me more information about my ethnicity and who my ancestors were. I can now trace some traits through the family. I have taken a course in Advanced Genetic Genealogy and learned how to use PowerPoint for phasing DNA segments (“Phasing” may be new to many genetic counselors but we veterans relied on it heavily in the good old days before the widespread availability of DNA tests).

The process has had a profound effect on me. We moved around a lot while I was growing up so we did not have large family dinners or family reunions. I actually felt a bit lost being in a new school every two years and not knowing more than my immediate family. Now I feel as though I have found my roots; my real roots, not information passed on that was inaccurate (Maybe Henry Louis Gates will call me for his PBS show, Finding Your Roots?). I never knew much about my ancestors and now I am planning a trip to Europe to visit the places I know they emigrated from. Also, as a result of my DNA testing I have located first cousins I lost track of as well as new cousins I never knew I had—Margaret had a lot of siblings. We are all sharing memories and enjoying connecting with one another. I have learned why my grandfather changed his surname from Wolf to Bowers, that I have a 5 times great grandfather who fought in the Revolutionary War, and another who fought in the Civil War before returning to his job as a silver engraver for Tiffany and Co. I knew none of this two years ago.

I am just one member of a very large segment of the public who is very interested in understanding their DNA and what it can tell them (as a small measure of the popularity of genealogy I am told that And Bob’s Your Uncle, Bob Resta’s post about pedigree nomenclature, has had more views than the next 10 most popular DNA Exchange postings combined!). Some are afraid of the government or insurance companies getting hold of their genetic information, but most are very curious as to what they can learn about themselves and their relatives. They are very good “Citizen Scientists” according to Blaine Bettinger, a well known genetic genealogist.

Many testers choose to upload their DNA results to Promethease, an internet health information site. Promethease uses SNPedia to predict risk and, in some cases, carrier status for genetic disorders. For example, I learned I am an alpha-1 antitrypsin mutation carrier and am at increased risk for macular degeneration, which my mother has—all for $5. Some of the Citizen Scientists have difficulty interpreting their results from the DTC companies or Promethease and turn to genetic counselors for help.

The popularity of genetic genealogy is a phenomenon genetic counselors can view as a threat or an opportunity. Personally, I believe it is an opportunity to work with a very large segment of the population in a very positive way. When Maureen Smith and I wrote the chapter on “Evolving Roles, Expanding Opportunities” for the textbook A Guide to Genetic Counseling, we did not include Genetic Genealogist as a potential role. But with the recent explosion of widely available ancestry testing and interpretive tools, genetic genealogy is another area where genetic counselors can apply their skills. I continue to learn more about genealogy and genetic health testing. Some days I use my genetics knowledge to provide simplified genomic counseling  such as answering questions for people about their ancestry and/or health reports. I also use virtual tools such as GoToMeeting and social media to educate people. Although it does not typically have the profound medical implications of clinical genetic testing, genetic ancestry testing can have significant emotional and psychological impact on users and their families. For example, I may use my counseling skills to help a client share unanticipated information such as mis-assigned paternity, the shattering of family myths, or surprising ethnic affiliations.

This winter a genealogist and I are co-teaching a course at Duke University Continuing Studies entitled “Applying DNA to Your Family Tree.” I am looking forward to working as an educator and teaching this aspect of genetics to those, like me, who are interested in learning more about themselves and their family. Hopefully it will help them and their family members better understand the relationship between genetics and health.

And to think that this all started because I wanted to learn about my grandmother Margaret.

Some  links  of interest:
2016 Best Genealogy Software Reviews:
PC Magaine – Best Genealogy Software and Services for 2016:,2817,2403077,00.asp
Reunion software for MAC
DNA, Ancestry Testing and You by Brianne E. Kirkpatrick:
Post to DNA Exchange by B.E.K.:
WatershedDNA website:
The International Society of Genetic Genealogy website:
The Legal Genealogist blog:
DNA Xplained blog:



Filed under Uncategorized

Miracles, Monsters, And Do-Re-Mi: A Variant Cultural History of The Word “Mutation”

None of us can cast stones for we are all fellow mutants together.

– Herman Muller (1950)

Until relatively recently, mutations were thought to be uncommon events that irregularly popped up around the genome, save for a few hotspots here and there. Unless exposed to a mutagen, DNA was conceptualized as a fairly stable molecule and the individual genome tolerated only a limited amount of variation. But large-scale DNA sequencing has demonstrated that gene mutations are pretty much the norm rather than the occasional exception. For example, a recent as yet unpublished study by Craig Ventner’s team of 10,545 deeply sequenced  human genomes found that each genome contributes on average 8,579 novel variants and uncovered more than 150 million variants in the coding and non-coding regions. If you run a complex genetic test and you don’t find a mutation of some sort, then there is probably something wrong with your sequencing technology. Of course, not all gene mutations are bad. Some are disease associated, some may confer biological advantage, some are neutral, and some are difficult to pin down. Differentiating among the good, the bad, and the neither-good-nor-bad has become a bête noire for anyone faced with interpreting the clinical significance of genetic test results for patients, especially when classifications differ among labs.

Although the word mutation carries some potently negative connotations, its definition implies objective scientific neutrality – “An alteration in the nucleotide sequence of DNA,” in its simplest form. But of necessity this is only a recent, post-Watson and Crick wording that itself has mutated over the centuries and that has often had some not-so-neutral musical, psychological, biological, pop culture, sociological, and religious ramifications. A hop, skip, and a jump through the history of the word reveals the richness and variety of its usage – as well as its darker sides.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the earliest recorded occurrences of the word goes back seven centuries to – who else? – Chaucer who used it in the sense of a change or alteration and whose Middle English rendered it as mutaycouns (“mutaycouns of fortune” from his translation of The Consolation of Philosophy by the Roman philosopher Boethius). Shakespeare used it similarly when, in King Lear, Edgar cries that the misfortunes of fate shorten our lives “World, World, O World! But that thy strange mutations make us hate thee, Life would not yield to age.”

Mutation was also used to describe the key Catholic belief in the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ during the sacrament of Communion. In the 1426 translation by John Lydgate of the French Cistercian monk Guilaume de Deguileville’s Pilgrimage of the Life of Man, a popular devotional book of the Middle Ages, we read about “That marvelous mutacion, Bred into flesshe, wyn into blood.”  This “marvelous mutacion” is a critical distinction between Protestant and Catholic theology, two religions that seemed to be at war with each other for most of the Middle Ages. Catholics believed that the Eucharist wafer dipped in wine transubstantiates into the actual body and blood of Christ whereas Protestants viewed it as a symbolic and ritual re-enactment of the Last Supper. Presaging future genetic connections between monsters and mutations, Martin Luther referred to transubstantiation as “a monstrous word for a monstrous idea.” During my Catholic school years, I remember joyously singing “Eat His Body, Drink His Blood, and we’ll sing a song of love. Allelu-Allelu-Alleluia!” Leonard Cohen does not have a thing over the Catholic hymnal.

Musically, mutation is the exchange of one syllable for another in an ascending note scale, as in solmization, i.e., associating a musical note with a human sound. Think do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. Mutation is also used in music to describe changes in singing voice that occur with age and gender, particularly the change that occur in boys’ voices as they transition to puberty, much to the chagrin of many choirmasters of Medieval Europe’s churches (a curiously coincidental link between religion and mutation). Choir boys were faced with a Sophie’s Choice of either genital mutilation or mutation.

Mutation also bridges musical and genetic definitions when DNA sequences are transformed into musical notes. For a couple of hundred bucks you can upload your 23andMe DNA sequence and have it translated into a piano solo, dance music, or a fully scored orchestral work. It’s a little bit funny, but the thing is what I really mean is that it gives new meaning to Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s 1970 hit single Your Song. As a leading candidate for the award of The World’s Worst Dancer, my daughters shudder to think what my DNA would sound like if it were translated into dance music and performed in public. No doubt it would contain many nonsense mutations although my daughters would hope it contains a very early premature stop codon. In a darkly comic coincidence that bridges modern music, Herman Muller’s above quote, and DNA, the musician Frank Zappa named his official fan club United Mutations, supposedly after reading his weird fan mail (think of how unusual the mail must have been if Zappa found it strange). And in another odd connection between mutation’s musical and biological connections, Zappa sounded like Darwin when he proclaimed “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”

The earliest reference I could find to the use of the word mutation in the context of evolution was in the 1869 publication Die Formenreihe des Ammonites subradiatus by Wilhelm Heinrich Waagen, a German paleontologist and geologist (no doubt somebody used the word before Waagen; there is always somebody else who was “really the first”). Based on his observations of fossil ammonites in the Punjabi Salt Range, Waagen proposed that evolution occurred slowly through minute mutations in a definite direction and that could be observed by careful examination of successive fossil strata, resulting in the eventual emergence of new species (though I think  he was thinking of mutations as anatomic rather than strictly genetic phenomena). Waagen was a devout Catholic who opposed Darwin’s evolutionary model and who tried to reconcile the fossil record with Genesis, suggesting that new species arose through new acts of divine creation

Mutation in its more modern sense arose with the re-discovery of Mendel’s work by de Vries, Correns, and Tschermak-Seysenegg and the flowering of modern genetics and evolutionary theory in 1900. de Vries in particular emphasized the importance of mutations to evolution in his magnum opus The Mutation Theory (1901-03). Gene mutations were now understood to be the engine that drove evolutionary change and chromosomes were thought to somehow carry genes. But the physical nature of mutations remained a mystery that was not resolved until the early 1950s when Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase identified DNA as the “hereditary material” and Watson and Crick famously resolved the structure and self-replicating mechanism of DNA.

Mutations could be adaptive or non-adaptive, though the presumption was that most mutations were evolutionary dead-ends and natural selection genetically purified the population (one can see the natural jump to eugenic ideologies). Creatures that were very different from their contemporaries presumably from underlying gene mutations were sometimes called, in the vocabulary of Richard Goldschmidt, “Hopeful Monsters,” evolutionary opportunities for saltatory speciation through chromosomal level mutations (Hopeful Monster and Hopeful Monsters are also the names of two different musical bands, as well as the title of 1990 novel by Nicholas Moseley). Others thought that hopeful monsters were only hopeful ideas and that speciation occurred through a more gradual dynamic balancing of winnowing and selection of small effect mutations.

Early 20th century eugenicists took the notion that mutations were largely negative and ran with it down some dark ethical alleyways. The “defective germ plasm” of immigrants from anywhere other than certain parts of northern and western Europe, people dwelling in the lower socio-economic rungs, the feeble-minded, and other undesirables made them genetic threats to the hereditarily healthy population. The solution to avoid becoming awash in defective germ plasm was to coercively or non-coercively discourage such genetic riff-raff from producing offspring. Eugenicists also encouraged genetically desirable people to have more offspring but such genetic hopefuls were not said to carry good mutations, just good genes.

The early 1930s saw the introduction of the far more neutral term allele, derived from allelomorph, which was itself introduced in 1902 by William Bateson, who also gave us the word “genetics.” Essentially alleles were versions of the same gene that differed on a DNA level. Although allele is in genetic publications, it has never really entered into the wider public vocabulary and discussion around genetic variation.

The geneticist Herman Muller had a career-long interest in genetic mutations, starting with his work with Drosophila in Thomas Hunt Morgan’s Fly Room at Columbia University and continuing with his Nobel-winning work on radiation induced mutations. His work, perhaps more than any other, was critical in the development of the idea that mutations were primarily harmful. In his influential 1950 American Journal of Human Genetics paper “Our Load of Mutations,” he viewed mutations as a “load” that the human species had to bear. However, he thought that most mutations were only slightly disadvantageous, and that each of us carries 8 slightly harmful mutations. Each mutation carried a selective disadvantage of 2.5%, and thus on average each person has a 20% chance of death or reproductive inefficiency as a result, under the assumption that humans were still living in the Neolithic. Muller worried that the comforts of the modern world allowed more maladaptive mutations to survive and increase, and that environmental exposure to ionizing radiation increased the frequency of  new mutations. This problem could be ameliorated by reducing the amount of man-made ionizing radiation and discouraging reproduction among those who carried the most mutations, “only” 3.5% of the population in his reckoning. Theodosius Dobzhansky served as a counter-point to Muller, arguing that variation was mostly adaptive and we should embrace the social and genetic diversity brought about by mutations (Muller’s paper and his disagreements with Dobzhansky are thoughtfully discussed in historian of biology Diane Paul’s 1987 paper “Our Load of Mutations” Revisited and is my primary source here).

Thus until about 60 years ago, with a few exceptions, mutations were largely viewed as having negative effects, while recognizing that some portion must be positive to allow adaptation and evolution to occur. Other than synonymous mutations in which the amino acid sequence is not altered, the notion that a mutation could have no phenotypic effect was not seriously discussed because mutations could only be inferred by their phenotypic effects. But in the 1960s, Motoo Kimura, among others, suggested that, based on studies of protein evolution, the rate of nucleotide substitutions was so high that it was difficult to believe they all had a positive or negative phenotypic effect. He felt that most mutations were neutral, that is, they have no measurable phenotypic effect and genetic variations among populations were largely the result of genetic drift, influenced by population size and dynamics. Mutations are like algae floating in the gene pool, pulled by the stochastic and unpredictable tides of populations

In Pop Culture, public fear of mutation arose in the context of the post World War II threat of nuclear war and the potential subsequent widespread exposure to ionizing radiation. Mutants in the public conception were typically monsters or super-humans with special powers that could be a blessing and/or a curse. Godzilla, The X-Men, the backwoods Southerners of  Deliverance, certain zombies (though apparently there are some finely nuanced arguments about the distinction between mutants and zombies), Spiderman, and the Hulk all owe their unique characteristics to mutations induced by radiation or inbreeding. For the most part, you don’t want to be these creatures. While it would be pretty cool to web-sling through the upper reaches of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, hulk-out to frighten off bad guys, or maybe even level a city or two, the message is almost always that being a mutant comes with the Faustian price of giving up the soul of your humanity. In conversation, to label someone a mutant is to suggest that they are very different, and usually in not such a good way. Even when used in a sort of positive context to describe super-athletes who seem to function on a different level than their competitors such as LeBron James, Diana Taurasi, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky, Florence Joyner, Michael Phelps, or Diana Nyad, its use suggests that they are a different species from the rest of us, “freaks of nature” (ironically echoing the centuries old terminology “sports of nature” to describe biological specimens whose anatomy deviated significantly from the species type).

Not surprisingly, for many patients in genetics clinics, discovering that they carry a mutation, even in a recessive form, can be a narcissistic ego blow and affect desirability as a mate. If you carry a mutation you are implicitly a mutant. Connotations of the word mutation contribute to fears of having children with disabilities. Currently in medical genetics, and probably for the better, mutation is falling out of favor and there is a trend to replace it with a more neutral, or least less negative, terminology. Mutations are now described as variants that are categorized by qualifiers – benign polymorphism, uncertain significance, deleterious/pathogenic, etc. Although this nicely delineates the multiple effects and uncertainties of mutations, it doesn’t necessarily suggest that carrying a mutation is a good or normal state of affairs. And carrying a pathogenic variant, even a likely pathogenic variant, usually doesn’t make you feel too good about yourself when you wake up each morning and look at yourself in the mirror.

Mutations also cause much fretting and hand-wringing on the societal level. Witness the controversy around genetically modified organisms and worries that Frankenstein-like plants or animals will take over the environment like some real-life mutation, er, variant, of Day of The Triffids. Even CRISPR-Cas9 and other gene editing systems, which are intended to fix mutations, are criticized because of fears that they may unknowingly induce undesirable mutations in non-targeted parts of the genome.

At the end of the day, mutations are part of our biological identity. They are literally etched into our DNA, although we would be ignorant of the existence of most of them in the absence of DNA sequencing technology. None of us are Wild Types and all of us are Wild Types. We should embrace mutations, not reject them (well, at least most of them). Mutation is the norm for life, not the exception. Despite their typical neutrality, fear of mutations has been used to justify religious wars, castration of pre-pubescent boys, sterilization of the “unfit,” and to engender deep-rooted psychological fears in parents and in societies. Muller and Zappa were both right – we are all mutants and we should be united. But it turns out that being a mutant is usually not such a bad thing.

For an excellent short review of the concept of mutations in the history of biology, see Mutation: The History of An Idea From Darwin To Genomics by Elof Axel Carlson, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2011. Once again thanks to Emily Singh for help with graphics. 


Filed under Robert Resta

Who Decides?

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.


Filed under Robert Resta

Appearances Are Important

About two months ago a story about conflict of interest in the Boston Globe caused a bit of a kerfuffle in the genetic counseling community. The article reported on the experiences of some pregnant women who felt that financial conflict of interest on the part of a few genetic counselors had resulted in the patients being given misinformation about the results of their non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT). The counselors mentioned in the study had either received speaking fees from the lab where the testing had been performed or was an employee of a lab.

In my reading, the source of the patients’ understandable frustrations stemmed not so much from conflicts of interest on the part of the genetic counselors as it did from misunderstandings on the part of the patients and their physicians about the distinction between the false positive rate and the positive predictive value of NIPT. These two very different statistical measures can easily be confused with one another and this confusion has haunted maternal serum screening since AFP screening for spina bifida was introduced in the early 1980s (we sometimes used to darkly joke that the A in AFP stood for Anxiety and the F stood for an impolite word that would be familiar to Boston Red Sox fans when they describe their nemesis Bucky Dent). Providers and patients often incorrectly interpret a false positive rate of, say, 0.2% to mean that a positive test indicates a 99.8% probability the baby will be affected with the disorder in question. Who would not be anxious if they were convinced that there was over a 99% chance that their baby has a potentially serious health condition?

I am sure that the genetic counselors in the story understood the distinction between positive predictive value and false positive rates, and tried very hard to convey this to the patients. These counselors are well-respected and highly ethical colleagues. Really, they could have been any of us. We all have been in these counselors’ shoes and we were all feeling their pain – as well as the patients’ pain – when we read the story. Did some blind spot on the part of the genetic counselors not allow them to see how their counseling may have been influenced by an unacknowledged conflict of interest? Perhaps, and that is a point worth considering seriously. But as every genetic counselor knows, the anxiety and emotional fragility of couples faced with threatening information, particularly during pregnancy, usually dominate genetic counseling sessions and can result in patients coming away with a less than perfect comprehension of statistical fine points. We humans are emotional creatures, not Vulcans.

I think that the evidence for overt financial conflict of interest on the part of these genetic counselors was not strong. The counselors were certainly not exploiting these patients “for personal advantage, profit, or interest,” in the words of the Code of Ethics of the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC). My guess is that the concern about conflict of interest arose from at least one of the patients not finding out about the counselor’s relationship with the lab until afterwards (from the article it is not clear if at the time of genetic counseling the patient was aware of the counselor’s financial ties to the lab but it seems that she learned about it only later).

And therein lies a critical point about conflict of interest – the appearance of financial conflict of interest can be just as corrosive as actual conflict of interest. Grumble though we may about the article, by bringing this to our attention, the reporter, Beth Daley, performed an important service for genetic counselors and our patients and we should be thankful for it. Public trust in our professional skills and judgement can be seriously compromised if patients perceive us to have a financial conflict of interest. Unless we openly and honestly confront conflict of interest in all its many forms, rather than deny its existence or ignore its potential, problems and misconceptions stemming from the appearance of conflict of interest will only worsen. And, possibly, a more blatant financial conflict of interest scandal may one day rear its ugly head (it would be astonishingly naive to believe that “It can’t happen here.”).

So how can the NSGC and individual genetic counselors help reduce the appearance of conflict of interest? We should be in the vanguard of addressing financial conflict of interest and demonstrate that we take it seriously. To this end, I have one concrete suggestion – the on-line NSGC directory of genetic counselors should include voluntarily provided information about the financial relationships of genetic counselors with any company other than their employers. And the directory should also clearly state who the employer is in situations where genetic counselors are employed by labs but working in hospitals and providers’ offices. While we are at it, maybe the American Board of Genetic Counseling should also consider doing this with its directory of certified genetic counselors. The Affordable Care Act requires this of physicians but for now the law does not apply to genetic counselors.

I am guessing that this suggestion might not immediately sit well with some of us. But once you get past your initial reaction and think about it a bit more clearly, it is a simple and powerful idea. It is also consistent with Section 1 of the NSGC Code of Ethics, which states that genetic counselors should:

Acknowledge and disclose circumstances that may result in a real or perceived conflict of interest.
Avoid relationships and activities that interfere with professional judgment or objectivity.

Actions are more powerful than words. Voluntarily including this information in the NSGC directory demonstrates that genetic counselors recognize that conflict of interest is a real problem and that we are not sitting around waiting to do something only if some federal law eventually requires us to do so. It allows patients to learn beforehand about a genetic counselor’s financial ties and gives patients the opportunity to discuss it openly with counselors. Or, if patients are so inclined, they can seek an alternative counselor or a second opinion.

Transparency is always the best policy – for us and for our patients.


Filed under Robert Resta

Everyone’s Worst Nightmare

The story that I tell here is, I know, a one-sided tale. It is also the source of pending litigation. A friend of a parent of the child reached out to me to ask me to share the story with the genetics community with the hope that some good could come out of a terrible experience, and did so with the approval of the parent’s lawyers. I obtained the details from publicly available records. I am not passing judgment on who was right, who was wrong, who did what, and who didn’t do what; the lawsuit will rule on that. I have had no involvement with the care of the patient or the subsequent legal wrangling, nor do I have any particular expertise about the disorder in question. For months I have struggled with whether the DNA Exchange is the appropriate venue for this, but ultimately decided that the family’s voice needs to be heard. I have largely anonymized the story because, really, specific names and diseases do not matter. What matters is that steps need to be taken to help ensure that other patients, families, providers, and laboratories do not repeat this sad tale.

The child was born about a decade ago, the product of an uncomplicated, happy, and desired pregnancy. At a few months of age, the child developed seizures after receiving a routine vaccination and went on to experience ongoing seizures of differing types. Various diagnoses were entertained particularly mitochondrial diseases and treatment included standard anti-seizure medications. A number of specialists were involved with the child’s care, including geneticists. Early on in the work-up genetic testing identified a mutation in a gene linked to a disorder that would explain the child’s seizures, a finding which the lab interpreted as a variant of unknown significance (VUS). Based on available literature at the time, there was some reason to believe that the variant might be a pathogenic mutation – it had been reported in affected patients –  but determining the clinical significance of a gene mutation is a problem that continues to plague genetic testing today.

Now here is where the story gets complicated and fuzzy, and to me where the tragedy starts to unfold. Apparently, the physician who ordered the test decided that the genetic test result was inadequate to help establish a definitive diagnosis, and pursued other diagnostic possibilities. As far as can be gleaned from the records, the genetic test results were not shared with the family although some of the treating physicians had considered the diagnosis on clinical grounds. The child continued to be treated with medications that, unfortunately, worsen the seizures for the condition that the child was ultimately diagnosed with – a condition caused by mutations in the gene in which the VUS was found. Sadly, the child died a few months shy of 3 years old from intractable seizures likely related to the contraindicated seizure medications.

The family did not find out about the genetic test results until about 7 years after the child died and only then after a parent requested the results. A few months later, the lab produced a revised report that reclassified the variant as a disease-associated mutation. Curiously, the report does not contain a revision date nor does it include the reasoning or data that led to the revised interpretation.

On one level, this story tells the genetics community nothing it did not already know – interpreting the clinical significance of a VUS is a terribly complicated and at times subjective affair. There is no single gold standard that can be used to determine clinical significance, which involves complex statistical, genetic, and biological analysis. Two equally capable labs can look at the same set of data and come up with diametrically opposite conclusions. Articles address the frequency of variants in genetic testing and differences in interpretation, along with providing an idea of the scope of the problem. But statistics are not stories. Stories convey the human impact of statistics and the urgency of the problem. As the saying goes, one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic (attributed to, of all people, Joseph Stalin).

Public databases such as ClinVar are starting to address this problem but they are still in their infancy. Indeed, a recent check of ClinVar revealed only one entry for the variant in question and the entry doesn’t even classify the variant. As human genome testing is ordered at exponentially increasing rates, the need for a uniform approach to genetic test interpretation and data-sharing is beyond pressingly critical. Restrictive gene patents and data hoarding may be good for business but they are not good for patient care. Lots of money will be made through genetic testing; some portion of those profits need to be channeled to funding well-curated freely available databases ( a database that is not well-curated is useless, and potentially harmful). Perhaps there could be tax breaks for labs that share data and government funding could favor research projects utilizing labs that share variant data.

But this story highlights other potential weaknesses in the genetic testing process. Parents and patients need to have pre-test genetic counseling so they are clearly informed when genetic testing is ordered. Results need to be explained to patients, even if they are uncertain. This is no mean feat, especially when a patient is going through an extensive work-up and many tests of all varieties are being ordered. Results have to be clearly available in medical records so all providers can have ready access to them, and patients should always have a copy of their test report made available to them along with an explanatory letter. A letter to the family summarizing the results could have prevented a lot of anguish for this family. There must be good mechanisms in place to regularly update test interpretations and for those updated interpretations to be communicated clearly and without delay to providers and patients. Patients should be encouraged to actively participate in seeking more information about their genetic test results and to enroll in centralized databases such as PROMPT. Maybe labs should allow a random sample of their report interpretations to be audited by an unbiased third party such as the College of American Pathologists to assure adherence to test interpretation guidelines. This could be a voluntary program but labs may be eager to participate as a selling point of their commitment to accuracy. Governments and insurers must allot the funds and resources for all this to take place.

The outcome here was the worst possible for everybody – most especially the patient and the patient’s family, but also no lab and no care provider ever wants something like this to happen to a patient. It haunts us all. If any good can come out of this, then this story will inspire us to work with greater urgency and cooperation to create workable solutions. Our patients deserve no less than the very best.

This posting is dedicated to the memory of the child whose all-too-short life is discussed here.


Filed under Robert Resta

The Good Enough Sinner

In The Late Show, my previous posting to The DNA Exchange, I bared my soul about how one of my personality quirks – a perhaps overenthusiastic commitment to punctuality – insinuated itself into my genetic counseling practice. Shortly after writing that piece, I headed off for a trip to Berlin and Prague. In Prague, we visited The Museum of Communism, a quirky little place that felt like an attic where someone stored a bunch of leftover random items from the Soviet Era. While strolling through the collection, the note on the time card rack pictured below (with the note in the original language and a translation for museum visitors below it) caught my eye:

Time card holder from the Soviet Era, displayed at The Museum of Communism, Prague, The Czech Republic.

Time card holder from the Soviet Era, displayed at The Museum of Communism, Prague, The Czech Republic.

Okay, so even I admit that you can sometimes take a personal obsession with timeliness a little too far for its own good. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that time card wall!

In response to The Late Show and Through A Counselor Darkly, my two previous postings to The DNA Exchange, several readers have rightly pointed out that the language used in those pieces was inherently judgmental, phrasing such as “unconscionably late” or “going on and on.” No argument from me there. In fact, that was the point of expressing my thoughts that way. What I have been exploring in these recent postings is my struggle between the personal Robert Resta and the professional Robert Resta. Personal Robert Resta can be a judgmental guy; Professional Robert Resta hopes that those judgments do not manifest themselves so blatantly when he interacts with patients.

In subtle and not so subtle ways, we feel pressure to be saintly counselors who always have pure thoughts about our beloved patients. In fact, though, most of us – and most especially me – are all-too-human sinners, not saints. Prick us and we will bleed. As a genetic counselor, I have plenty of impure thoughts and experience near occasions of sin, many of which can sometimes slip into my counseling sessions like a stealth bomber from my id. My counseling style will ineluctably reflect my personality, warts and all. In much the same way, my Catholic upbringing informs the imagery I use in these confessional pieces.

On the other hand, there are some good parts of my personality that I want very much to come out in my genetic counseling – wit, warmth, some measure of wisdom, compassion. I aim to be saintly when I am actively engaged in genetic counseling, but I try to maintain an active awareness of my human frailties and limitations. I am coal hoping my diamond shines through.

One can hear echoes of  Donald Winnicott‘s theory of The Good Enough Mother here (nowadays, we might say The Good Enough Parent). In Winnicott’s paradigm, The Perfect Mother is, paradoxically, an inferior parent because the child develops a fantasy bond based on an omnipotent and infallible parent, which no parent can ever be and which does not prepare the child for developing healthy, reality-based relationships with family members and the community. Instead, the Good Enough Mother’s inherent flaws are actually critical to normal child development and encourage healthy separation from dependence on the mother. I think this is what Annette Kennedy was trying to make us aware of more than 15 years ago when she wrote about supervision in genetic counseling and suggested that we should strive to be Good Enough Counselors (forgive me, Annette, if I have misrepresented you). In my version, we strive to be Good Enough Sinners.

By articulating my inner thoughts, insecurities, and feelings and sharing them with the genetic counseling community, it provides an opportunity for me to grow and to better mediate between Professional Me and Personal Me. Humbly, I like to believe that others may profit from this experience as well. If even a few of us become slightly better counselors as a result, well, Amen to that.



Filed under Robert Resta