Author Archives: Katie Stoll

Guest Post: If Gay Means Happy, Then Why am I so Sad?

By Austin McKittrick

Austin is a genetic counselor for Genetic Support Foundation, a non-profit genetic counseling group, where he provides telehealth genetic counseling from his home base in Vancouver, WA. He a first time blogger, long time reader of the DNA Exchange.

 

A study recently published in Science sought to answer the age-old question: Where’s the ‘gay gene’? As a member of both the genetics and LGBTQ+ community, this headline naturally piqued my interest. I’ve always thought that this question is inherently a double-edged sword: by ‘proving’ that non-same sex attraction is in some way genetic, the whole ‘it’s a choice’ argument can finally be put to rest. But finding a scientifically detectable ‘cause’ for non-heteronormative behavior naturally brings up an equal (if not greater) level of concern.

The intentions of researchers are often not what is embodied by the products of that research. I honestly don’t think that the creators of genetic testing for ancestry thought that this testing would one day be used by the Canadian government to try to sort out where migrants to their country are ethnically from. But maybe they should have.

Even when we think we understand the genetics of a trait, the outcomes often aren’t as straightforward as we once believed. Particularly for a trait such as ‘nonheterosexual behavior’, where social, religious, family, and political influences also strongly affect one’s beliefs and how they may choose to reconcile those beliefs with their lifestyle. Genetics is leaping forward faster than the majority of us had probably anticipated, and we’re getting a real lesson about putting the cart before the horse.

There are some issues with how the study was conducted, as sexual identity is very complex and some of the questions have been viewed as being too binary and focused on behavior rather than sexual orientation. The researchers categorized people into two buckets: those who have EVER had ONE or more same-sex sexual experience are categorized as ‘nonheterosexual’ while those who have never had a same-sex sexual experience are categorized as ‘heterosexual’. They do make an attempt later in the study to outline that sexuality is a spectrum, but that assertion is buried amongst other extrapolations.

The data sets for this study were collected from the UK Biobank, as well as direct-to-consumer testing company 23andMe. Companies such as these encourage their customers to consent to having their DNA used for research, promising that their selfless contribution will further the field of genetics and healthcare. In all actuality, it appears that this data is being sold to entities that are using it for less medically noble endeavors. Aside from individuals not fully understanding that their data could be used for such ‘research’, they may actually unknowingly be participating in research that could potentially lead to discrimination and other harms against them in the future.

The authors of the ‘gay gene’ study determined that ‘like other behavioral traits, nonheterosexual behavior is polygenic’. There you have it folks: it’s not ONE gene. It’s LOTS of genes! Is that better? Worse? Depends on what you do with that information…

Enter GenePlaza, a company that boasts that it can take the DNA information that you’ve received from companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com and use its internal apps to tell you things like how smart you are or how good you are at math (in case your grades in school didn’t tell you already). With data taken from this new study, GenePlaza proposed that for $5.50 they could tell you exactly how gay you are.

Backlash to the announcement of the app was swift, and a petition was quickly announced in an effort to get the app shut down. Although at the time of this publication it not yet reached its goal of 2,500 signatures, it appears to have been effective as there is no sign of the app now on GenePlaza’s app site.

It’s tempting to want to give GenePlaza the benefit of the doubt. ‘Oh they just thought it would be a harmless app’ or ‘They probably just thought it’d be a good party trick’. However, the revelations that the app’s developer, Joel Bellenson, is based full-time in Uganda paired with the news that this year Uganda is announcing plans that would make the death penalty punishment for homosexuality makes it seem that something more nefarious may be at play.

As the authors of the study said, we should resist ‘simplistic conclusions because the behavioral phenotypes are complex, because our genetic insights are rudimentary, and because there is a long history of misusing genetic results for social purposes.’

Some have raised concerns about the motivation of such research studies. But once something like this is out of the bag, it’s very difficult to put back in. No matter the motivation, this is another shining example that when it comes to genetic technology, we regularly need to be asking ourselves not only ‘Can we?’, but ‘Should we?’.

 

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MUTYH: Who should be screened? How should we screen? Who decides?

As recently discussed on the DNA Exchange, general population screening for any health condition has both risks and benefits, and sound health policy should weigh all of these factors to ensure that we are doing more good than harm. But the debate about what, who, and how we should be screening for hereditary cancer risk seems to be mainly an academic exercise practiced by some in the clinical genetics and public health communities. While we continue to debate the merits of population screening, the commercial laboratories keep pushing forward, making these tests readily available to the general population through direct to consumer (DTC) testing products.

Often the cancer genetic test isn’t the main product that the customer is seeking, but rather may be a bonus of sorts provided along with ancestry and other DTC tests. Such is the case for the new health reports for MUTYH variants that 23andMe began releasing this past summer. Individuals who inherit one MUTYH pathogenic variant may have a slightly increased risk for colon cancer. Individuals who inherit biallelic pathogenic variants have a very high risk for colon polyps, colon cancer and other cancers and are said to have MUTYH-Associated Polyposis syndrome, or MAP.

Earlier this year, 23andMe received clearance from the FDA to release information about two variants in the MUTYH gene that are common in individuals of European ancestry – G396D and Y179C. The basis for this 510(k) approval is that it is substantively equivalent to the 23andMe BRCA test (which evaluates for three founder mutations most common in individuals of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry). The company recently reported that they have over 10 million customers, with approximately half of those accessing the health portion of the testing (in contrast to ancestry alone). And considering that about 80% of those customers are of European ancestry, I estimate that of the approximately 4 million people received the new new MUTYH Genetic Health Risk report. Through this report. I estimate that about 250 people may have learned that they have MAP and about 60,000 customers learned that they are carriers for one of these two MUTYH variants. 

So who should be screened for MUTYH variants? If you ask 23andMe the answer would be everyone. How should we screen? According to 23andMe, screening should be done by a two variant genotype panel. And who decides who is screened? From what I gather, this new health report was not driven by customer demand, nor were healthcare providers calling for more access to MUTYH testing. Generally our guidelines recommend MUTYH testing only in very specific circumstances, such as when a patient has multiple adenomatous polyps, or if they have a sibling who has been diagnosed with MAP. But it is not the healthcare providers or guidelines directing who is screened. Presently it would seem that 23andMe decides who gets screened for MUTYH variants, and with the blessing of the FDA. I am curious to know how my genetic counselor colleagues are handling or are likely to handle such cases. What would you most likely offer to a patient that comes for genetic counseling with a heterozygous positive DTC MUTYH variant report, and no family history concerning for MUTYH polyposis or other hereditary cancer syndrome?

 

My hunch is that most genetic counselors would offer follow-up clinical testing, and that this will usually be at a minimum a full analysis of MUTYH. I certainly can see the benefit of identifying patients who have biallelic MUTYH variants to allow for earlier and more frequent colonoscopy screening and prevention of some cases of early onset colon cancer for those who may not otherwise have known that they were at increased risk. Since the announcement of the new health reports by 23andMe I have been curious about how many individuals with MAP could be identified through this stepwise screening, first with 23andMe and then follow-up clinical testing of the entire MUTYH gene for all of those who first have one or two variants detected through 23andMe.

Staying with the estimated 4 million 23andMe customers of European descent who opted for the health reports, I estimate that there are about 390 total people out of the 4 million who have MAP, and of these about 250 would be identified through testing the two common variants alone (homozygous or compound heterozygous for Y179C/G396D.  (My calculations and assumptions are all available here.) Through this stepwise screening of sequence analysis only for those who are first found to have at least one common variant, we would identify approximately 374 of the total 390 people with MAP, while missing about 16 people who carry two less common MUTYH variants. The cost per MAP case identified depends on the cost of follow-up genetic testing. Publicly available pricing suggests that single gene analysis of the MUTYH gene through a clinical lab is typically between $500-$1,500 per test for complete single gene analysis, although clinical testing may be priced as low as $250 to more than $2,000 per test. Thus, through this stepwise process (full gene analysis for those with one or more common variants first identified) the cost for clinical genetic testing would be somewhere on the order of $42,000 – $378,00 per MAP case identified. Given that general population guidelines recommend colon cancer screening should begin at age 50 and because approximately 75% of colon cancer in individuals with MAP occurs in patients under the age of 50, this genetic screening approach, and initiation of colonoscopy screening at an earlier age than typically recommended, could prevent as many as 94 cases of early onset colon cancer in this 23ndMe screened group, with cost per case prevented in the range of $168,000 to 1.5 million. It is important to note that this only considers genetic testing. A more complete economic analysis may include genetic counseling costs, additional cancer screening costs, as well as the estimated cost for genetic testing in other family members.

23andMe isn’t the only company that has an interest in MUTYH screening. Several labs offer DTC, or the close relative of DTC testing, the so called “patient-initiated, physician-mediated” testing in which an individual may request testing themselves, and a physician contracted by the lab signs off on the test order to bypass the need for FDA scrutiny (a discussion for another post). MyHeritage, who previously offered only ancestry testing recently began offering a “health” component which includes four variants in the MUTYH gene (including the two common European variants). Color Genomics and  Invitae  both consumer-initiated, physician-mediated tests as well as clinician ordered tests that provide a more complete analysis of MUTYH and other cancer susceptibility genes. 

Is more comprehensive testing such as full gene sequencing better when it comes to MUTYH testing in the general population? It depends on how better is defined. I can certainly appreciate that detecting those additional 16 individuals with MAP (and being able to prevent about 4 cases of early onset colon cancers) that would have been missed in our 23andMe population of 4 million people would be one benefit to more comprehensive testing. But what’s the trade off? 

At the recent American Society of Human Genetics meeting in Houston, Invitae presented data reviewing MUTYH variants found in analysis of a cohort of 270,806 patient samples that were submitted for multigene hereditary cancer risk panels. They reported that through a more complete analysis of MUTYH they discovered 5,929 patients with pathogenic or likely pathogenic variants in MUTYH, of which 1,377 (23%) of these patients carried one or more variants other than G396D and Y179C. That’s no surprise – in fact it fits well with our current understanding of the population frequencies for these genetic variants as well as our appreciation that about 80% of variants detected through MUTYH testing in a population of mostly individuals of European Caucasian ancestry are the G396D and Y179C variants.

The presented statistic that is getting the most attention in the news since the meeting is Invitae’s assertion that 40% of individuals in the cohort with biallelic mutations would have been missed by the targeted variant testing. But the necessary context that is missing here is that about 90% of those that would be “missed” in that 40% would have one of the two common variants paired with a second other, undetected variant. Through a stepwise approach in which only individuals with one or more of the common variants on first screening through 23andMe had follow-up clinical sequence analysis, approximately 96% of the total MAP cases would be identified. That means there would be only about 4% of individuals who would have biallelic variants that both would have gone undetected by a stepwise approach that begins with a two-variant screen.

If we were to ask Invitae who should be screened, I believe they would likely agree with 23andMe that everyone should be tested. Where they differ is in how the screening should be done, with Invitae advocating for more complete next generation sequence analysis for all people rather than targeted SNP panels. I can appreciate the logic in this argument that this strategy would detect more cases of MAP, especially in people who are not of European ancestry. But how would the cost of testing compare for the number of cases detected? The devil is in the details of how this testing is done and who pays for it. Invitae currently offers a patient-initiated, physician-mediated cancer gene panel for $250. If people elected this test and paid for it on their own instead of having 23andMe, given that it is considered a clinical test and no follow-up studies would be needed, then we would not see the additional cost in follow-up clinical testing (although we may see more downstream costs with follow-up for variants, including variants of unknown significance in other genes on the panel). My sense though is that people seek out tests like 23ndMe for reasons other than to know there MUTYH or other cancer gene status. So if we are considering the total cost of clinical testing for all people rather than just for those who present with at least one of the common mutations on a screening DTC test we would see quite a dramatic increase in the cost to identify a case of MAP as well as the cost to potentially prevent a case of colon cancer before the age of 50 (61-fold increase over the stepwise approach).

What is difficult to tease out in these analyses is that most tests that include MUTYH are not ordered with a high suspicion or concern for MAP. In most cases, it is included as part of a bigger panel, and MUTYH is not the primary reason for testing. In the case of 23andMe it comes along as part of a bigger ancestry, traits and health screen. In the case of Invitae it usually comes along as part of a multigene cancer panel for which the primary indication is usually for evaluation of genes other than MUTYH. So should we consider that extra information provided by the MUTYH analysis in patients a bonus or a burden? As DTC and consumer-initiated testing becomes more common, and as clinical testing panels more often include MUTYH, are we spending more time counseling patients about MUTYH results that are unlikely to significantly affect health outcomes or screening recommendations for the patient or their family members? I worry that patients may put too much value on these results as a possible explanation for their cancer, when it may unlikely be the case. And I feel conflicted about how much we should be advocating for family member testing when there is such a small chance that their care and outcomes will change as a result. 

The focus right now seems to be on the question of how we should be screening for MUTYH. I think we are engaging in the wrong discussion here – I think we should go back to the heart of this and really take a close look at why we are doing this testing?  What is driving adoption of expanding genetic testing to include analysis of genes such as MUTYH? And how should we integrate these technologies into practice in a way that will help the most people and cause the least harm. We need to critically consider the statistics that are presented and carefully weigh the costs versus the benefits of expanding testing. 

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Given that we are just a week away from the annual NSGC conference, I’d like to make a plug for the 3rd annual ‘GC’s Got Talent’ hosted by Genetic Support Foundation on November 6th from 7-10 pm. The event will be Emceed by the ever engaging and talented DNA Exchange blogger, Bob Resta. In addition to storytelling, dancing, singing and comedic acts, a silent auction will showcase the artistic and creative talents of GCs. It’s not too late to sign up to share your talent and we are seeking storytellers for the themes: “Confessions of a Genetic Counselor” or “Most Awkward Moment in my Career”…Contact  info@geneticsupport.org for additional info.

2016 talent show

 

 

 

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Mind Games

As is the case with many topics in genetics, I learn the most in my time away from the office, researching questions for friends and family. And the genetics questions du jour are almost all related to pharmacogenomics (PGx) testing. More specifically, PGx testing for psychiatric medications. Maybe you are getting these questions too? For me, they usually go something like this:

Are these genetic tests that promise to tell you what

antidepressant medication will work best for you a real thing?

And if they are, why isn’t everybody taking them?

I have witnessed friends and family members struggle with medication management for depression, anxiety and mood disorders. People in these situations are often desperate for help and quite vulnerable. I can fully appreciate the hope that a simple genetic test could provide the answers to ease the journey. But as we find with many things in genetics, the reality is much more complicated than the hopeful answer we wish we could give. Ultimately, I know my position on this will disappoint many who are looking for that silver bullet. While there are a handful of applications for pharmacogenomics in specific situations related to psychiatric medications that have evidence to support their use, there is little evidence that multigene panels in this area lead to better outcomes. There is concern that harm may come because of the use of this unproven information to guide important decisions with prescribing and dosing of psychiatric meds. 

My conclusions regarding these tests are in part based on critiques from reputable sources on the current state of commercially available PGx psychiatric panels, including the American Psychiatry Association Workgroup for Novel Biomarkers and Treatments. This workgroup performed a detailed review of several commercially available tests and concluded that there is a lack of sufficient evidence to support the widespread clinical use of the proprietary combinatorial pharmacogenomic models used by these labs. There are many publications that highlight issues with existing studies about these tests including concerns related to conflict of interest and problematic study design. The financial sector is also following this topic closely given much has been invested based on the promise of these testing products being adopted broadly. Recognizing the strong commercial drivers at play here also causes me to view laboratory claims with a dose of skepticism. 

But when it comes to the general public, I think the commercial push to see these tests more broadly adopted is drowning out the voices of the experts who are urging caution. It seems that since many in the field of psychiatry aren’t convinced that these tests are ready for prime time, the labs have decided to bypass the most relevant specialty, and go straight for patients and primary care providers. Additionally healthcare payers are banking on the promise that these PGx tests will more than pay for themselves by allowing for better precision in prescribing of expensive medications. Payer support is helping to move psychiatric PGx testing to the mainstream.

New pharmacy-laboratory partnerships are emerging to promote these tests. Last year, PGx lab Genomind®  announced a partnership with Albertsons Sav-On, Jewel-Osco and Acme Sav-On pharmacies: pharmacists can discuss PGx testing with patients and, if the patient consents, the pharmacists will directly contact the prescribing provider to “suggest the Genecept® Assay. ” The  sample can be collected right in the pharmacy. Last month, Myriad Genetics, Inc. announced a similar program with Kroger Prescription Plans to promote GeneSight®  genetic tests in Kroger pharmacies. From the GeneSite® press release: “pharmacists at more than 2,300 Kroger stores will provide counselling about GeneSight® to eligible employer group members and facilitate testing with their prescribing healthcare professionals.”

Pharmacists are now direct marketing genetic testing to patients. And while members of the pathology and clinical laboratory space are taking some issue with this, there hasn’t been much public concern raised by the broader medical genetics community about this proposal to have pharmacists providing “genetic counseling” and facilitation of genetic testing.   

It will be interesting to see how these programs evolve with greater attention from regulators. With several years of push and pull between labs marketing these tests and clinicians raising concerns about their clinical utility and safety, the FDA has recently started to flex their regulatory muscles in this space. In Oct 2018, the agency published a Safety Communication, warning patients not to change management based on PGx results without first discussing with their healthcare provider and to be aware that claims made by genetic testing laboratories about PGx tests are not supported by sufficient clinical evidence. The FDA cautions healthcare providers in the use of these tests and directs providers to FDA-approved drug and genetic test labels. Lastly, the communication advised test manufacturers not to include specific drug information that is inconsistent with FDA-approved drug labeling. In April, the FDA sent a letter to Inova Health System with concern that the clinical validity of their PGx tests had not been established for the reported intended uses. Shortly after this letter was issued, Inova elected to cease offering their MediMap® tests. The FDA has been in communication with several other laboratories and stated that “most firms addressed the FDA’s concerns by removing specific medication names from their labeling, including promotional material and patient test reports.”

Some of the critiques I have heard about the FDA’s engagement in regulating these tests is centered around whether or not the FDA should be the authority on the evidence required to support the relationship between certain variants and drug metabolism. A frequently referenced pain point is the difference between the PGx genes/variants that make the cut per FDA drug labeling and the evidence grade rating per the Clinical Pharmacogenetics Implementation Consortium of the Pharmacogenomics Research Network (CPIC). In looking at most of the commercially available PGx tests on the market today though, it is clear that many of the variant-drug connections included on lab reports are not consistent either with the FDA-approved list or with CPIC guidelines

For example, the sample GeneSight® report available online as of the day of this posting, under the category of “Mood Stabilizers” shows three drugs in the red bucket, “Significant Gene-Drug Interaction” and no drugs in the green, “Use As Directed” bucket. Top of the red list is lamotrigine (Lamictal®), which has a footnote that reads “Use of this drug may increase the risk of side effects.” The justification given in the Gene-Drug Interactions table is a variant in the UGT1A4 gene. Search of the CPIC database gives the UGT1A4 – lamotrigine pair a “D” level rating. According to the website, the CPIC D Level is defined as follows: “There are few published studies, clinical actions are unclear, little mechanistic basis, mostly weak evidence, or substantial conflicting data. No prescribing actions are recommended.” How might this report affect a person with bipolar who is struggling to find the right medication? One can imagine that it may be difficult for both the patient and the prescribing provider to feel comfortable with a treatment plan when not supported by this genetic test report.

For the same GeneSite® sample report, under the “Antidepressants” heading, there are a total of 22 antidepressents for which analysis is available, with only three in the “Use as Directed” green bucket. Top of that long list of 22 drugs in the red, “Significant Gene-Drug Interaction” bucket is bupropion (Wellbutrin®). Bupropion is a medication commonly used to treat depression and has been approved by the FDA for use since 1985 with a generic version of this drug readily available. There is no data in the CPIC database to support the assertion made my GeneSight® of a “Significant Gene-Drug Interaction” with bupropion. And interestingly, the only three antidepressant medications that made it to the green “Use as Directed” category are expensive drugs for which no generic version is available: levomilnacipran (Fetzima®), desvenlafaxine (Pristiq®), and vilazodone (Viibryd®). If I received this report and didn’t know better, I might assume that these drugs would be worth the high price tag if they are genetically the most likely to treat depression without the potential for side effects. There is no gene-drug information in CPIC about any of these three preferred medications, and I didn’t have to look very far beyond the GeneSight® report to see the long list of side effects and contraindications associated with each of these medications. But imagine the difficulty a prescribing provider might have in convincing a patient to consider forgoing the expensive new drugs in the green bucket to consider a more affordable medication with a longer history of success in treatment from the red bucket. Lab reports are not often looked at as one piece of the puzzle, but rather as the *truth* by patients. And as I have previously written on a different topic, it is incredibly difficult to convince a patient that an expert assessment may be more trustworthy than what is printed on a test report. 

Regulation of genetic testing is a big and thorny issue, and I don’t claim to have easy solutions for improving these challenges. But what I do hope to do is to begin a conversation with my fellow genetic counselors on what role we should have in the dissemination of information regarding PGx testing. I feel it is our professional obligation to understand, to the best of our abilities, the evidence or lack thereof when counseling our patients, consulting with other healthcare providers and discussing these tests with friends and family. When people first started asking me about these tests, my initial feeling was one of hope and optimism. Of course it would be wonderful if a simple genetic test could provide a clear path towards the best medication for those who are suffering. Now, after having spent hours down the rabbit hole to try to better understand the current state of this field, I remain hopeful that these tools may someday provide real benefit for the masses. Unfortunately, it seems to me that at the present time, this wild west of the competitive genetic testing marketplace has resulted in bigger but not necessarily better panels, including information that is often not evidenced-based. I worry that these reports could lead people down a wrong, and potentially dangerous path.

So for now when my loved ones ask me, “are these genetic tests that promise to tell you what antidepressant medication will work best for you a real thing?” I will give the more cautious and complicated answer. While this technology holds promise for the future, the evidence we have at this point does not support that these tests will help guide better care and lead to better outcomes for most people. And I will continue to do my best to support them on the journey forward, wherever the bumpy and winding road may lead.

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Expanded Carrier Sequencing: Would You Rather?

On summer road trips, my kids loves to play a game Would you rather?  For instance, would you rather eat a bowl of spaghetti noodles without sauce or a bowl of spaghetti sauce without noodles?  Would you rather have a unicorn horn or a squirrel tail?

In the spirit of summer road trips and the holiday weekend, I’d like to play a game of Would you rather? that only genetic counselors can appreciate.

This is a trade off we have to make with carrier screening.

Carrier screening programs intended for the general population as supported by the practice guidelines put forth by our professional societies tend to favor Option B. The reason being that more harm than good may result when providing information that is uncertain or ambiguous, especially in the context of reproductive decision making.

These days however, Option A is becoming increasingly common. Although at odds with society recommendations, which generally recommend a more targeted approach, the use of expanded carrier screening (ECS) panels that utilize sequencing are being more commonly accepted into practice with labs often claiming that more prenatal testing is better.

But is more really better?  

In theory, it makes sense to offer screening that provides as much information as possible. However, we know that what makes sense in theory does not necessarily lead to good medical practice. And there are warning tales of screening programs that were initiated with good intention but led to unfortunate, unintended consequences.

Consider the early days of carrier screening for cystic fibrosis (CF) as an example. After years of careful study and deliberation, in 2002 experts from the American College of Medical Genetics together with American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published recommendations for use a panel of 25 mutations in the CFTR gene. However this initial panel was revised in 2004  when it became evident that one of the originally defined mutations,  p.I148T (c.443TC) was in fact a benign polymorphism.

On a panel of just 25 mutations, in a well known gene, for a well defined condition, after years of critical expert evaluation, a mutation that  was initially included on a panel as causative of disease was eventually determined not not be, only after being put into practice. It is likely that Option A was a reality for some families in the early days of CF carrier screening.

Now consider that with expanded carrier screening panels that increasingly perform whole exon sequencing, often of >100 genes, one can imagine that many of the mutations being called with carrier screening are not disease causing. I believe that Option A will become much more frequent with greater utilization of carrier screening panels that use sequencing.  

And in addition to the possibility of incorrect variant classification, there is also a concern for increased false positive results as carrier screening expands. A reality with any screening test is that the rarer the condition, the more likely a positive result is a false positive result.

 

When questions arise regarding interpretation of variants on ECS panels, the labs often respond that they follow the ACMG Standards and Guidelines for Interpretation of Sequence Variants.

But here’s the thing, these guidelines were not developed for carrier screening in a healthy population. To quote the ACMG document: “The following approach to evaluating evidence for a variant is intended for interpretation of variants observed in patients with suspected inherited (primarily Mendelian) disorders in a clinical diagnostic laboratory setting.”

 

The authors of the ACMG Standards also warn: “Caution must be exercised when using these guidelines to evaluate variants in healthy or asymptomatic individuals or to interpret incidental findings unrelated to the primary indication for testing. In these cases the likelihood of any identified variant being pathogenic may be far less than when performing disease-targeted testing. As such, the required evidence to call a variant pathogenic should be higher, and extra caution should be exercised. In addition, the predicted penetrance of pathogenic variants found in the absence of a phenotype or family history may be far less than predicted based on historical data from patients ascertained as having disease.”

 

As genetic counselors we are trusted to advise patients of this information, and knowing that such information is used to make life changing reproductive decisions (i.e utilizing prenatal diagnosis, pregnancy termination, undergoing assisted reproductive technologies and preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or deciding not to have biological children) we know how important it is that the information we provide patients is unambiguous, accurate, and evidenced based.

However, we seem to be accepting the move to expanded carrier screening panels using sequencing rather than more targeted genotyping panels with little question about whether this is the right thing to do.

While many have accepted that expanded carrier screening with sequence analysis is the new normal, we should note that despite the marketing spin by the companies that this method of testing is superior, there are still no prospective studies that demonstrate clinical validity and utility of expanded carrier screening panels with sequencing. And guidance from our professional societies recommends a more limited approach to carrier screening.

While labs promote certain conditions included on their carrier screens as “recommended” by the ACMG and ACOG, they fail to acknowledge that those professional societies specifically advise against whole exon sequencing, and instead recommend a more targeted approach that evaluates, and reports on only well characterized mutations.

From the ACMG Position Statement on Prenatal/Preconception Carrier Screening (2013):  “There must be validated clinical association between the mutation(s) detected and the severity of the disorder.”  And more recently, from the ACOG Committee Opinion 691 on Carrier Screening for Genetic Conditions (2017):  “Complete analysis of the CFTR gene by DNA sequencing is not appropriate for routine carrier screening.”

Who should decide which test is best?  The testing laboratories? The professional medical organizations?  Patients?

It seems that for now, that the laboratories are steering this ship. Despite the lack of evidence proving benefit and many cautions against it, several labs have sunsetted genotyping panels and have moved exclusively to sequencing, for what seems to be an ever growing number of rare conditions. It is becoming increasingly difficult for clinicians to follow the guideline recommendations when ordering tests for patients and we seem to be quickly entering a time where Option B is not an option at all.

It should not come as a surprise that the labs are pushing this new expanded testing as there is an incentive for labs to use sequencing over genotyping from a business perspective.

Sequencing genes rather than using a defined mutation panel allows for labs to boast of a higher detection of carriers, thus provides bragging rights for their marketing materials. One lab highlights on their website that their test identifies “30% more pregnancies affected with cystic fibrosis or spinal muscular atrophy” when compared to the ACMG and ACOG  recommended panel. What is omitted on their website is that for some of the mutations identified, we do not yet have definitive information about disease causation or phenotype. And thus we are asking patients to make reproductive decisions based on uncertain information.

Another compelling reason for the labs to expand to sequencing is that detecting more mutations in the patient begets more testing of their partners. And more testing is the name of the game with laboratories that aim to increase test sales. Understandably that is their goal as it should be, we need labs to sell test in order to stay in business and provide a needed service for patients and providers. That said, lab sales and profits should not be driving best practices for patient care.

 

While more may seem better in some situations, this notion should be especially scrutinized in the area of reproductive carrier screening. As the professionals that are trusted to interpret these tests results and help patients understand this information in the context of their own lives, we need evidence beyond modeled hypothetical disease risk to demonstrate that these expanded tests will truly benefit pregnancy outcomes. As has been discussed on the DNA Exchange in a prior post by Bob Resta, positive change to do best for our patients in this area will require work from multiple parties. Labs should put the brakes on with regards to marketing new tests and step back while independently funded research assesses the relative harms and benefits of testing. Governments need to fund such research. And clinicians need to critically evaluate the testing that is offered to patients, especially when unproven testing strategies are being introduced and promoted that may create more harm than good.

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DTC: Direct to Children?

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

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

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

samginger

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

 

Genetic testing from the kitchen sink

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

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

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

 

Children are a target market for these tests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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The Hidden Costs of “Free” Genetic Counseling

A Guest Post by Eleanor Griffith, MS, CGC

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Growing Pains

With the rapid growth of the genetic testing industry, professional opportunities for genetic counselors have expanded rapidly.  Not only are genetic counselors now working in nearly every area of healthcare, many are embracing new roles as laboratory specialists, clinical science liaisons, and in sales and marketing roles for genetic testing companies. Some are entrepreneurs founding their own companies and pioneering new models for access to genetic information. It’s not surprising to see genetic counselors embracing these new roles. Like the founders of our field, seeing opportunities in change and forging new trails in uncharted territory seems to be characteristic of genetic counselors.

But navigating new terrain isn’t often easy.  As written by Alexandra Minna Stern in her historical account of the profession, ”the emergence of the genetic counselor as a bona fide professional was neither inevitable nor smooth.”  

Do other genetic counselors feel that we are currently in the midst of a most turbulent and rocky stretch of our profession’s journey through time?

Although we have had graduates from Master’s level genetic counseling training programs for more than 40 years, as well as a growing body of evidence regarding the value we bring to patient care, we are still reaching for recognition as healthcare professionals. While we seem to be making progress towards this goal, we have yet to be recognized by Medicare and many commercial payers as healthcare providers. Additionally, in many states the quest for licensure remains an incredible challenge.  

One of the biggest obstacles genetic counselors currently face is public perception of genetics and genetic testing. It seems that genetic discoveries that are part of evidenced based strategies to improve human health are increasingly being overshadowed by consumer genetic testing for entertainment. For example, screening for and treating familial hypercholesterolemia is considered to be a Tier 1 genomics application by the CDC given the level of evidence and potential to benefit public health. However it is estimated that less than 1% of the affected population in the US have been diagnosed.

On the other hand, consumer genetic tests are being increasingly utilized. Home DNA test kits through companies such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com were among the top selling holiday gifts this year. Consumer genomic testing claims to provide information about everything from personalized skin care recommendations, to what one’s ideal fitness regimen will work best, to what one’s hypothetical future children may look like. Some companies combine a mix of evidenced based health information with unproven claims related to entertainment and wellness information which leaves many in the field of genetics uncomfortable.

As genetic counselors, we are regarded as experts when it comes to genetic testing. So how should we respond to the flood of options in the direct to consumer space?  How should we be talking about these tests with our patients?  How should we be talking about these tests with other healthcare providers?  These are crucial questions for our profession, but ones that genetic counselors don’t seem to seem to agree on.

Through the media, through our professional discussion forums, and in conversations at genetics conferences over the past couple of years, I have heard two predominant and conflicting messages regarding genetic counselors’ opinion on consumer genomic testing. Some are enthusiastic, and believe the use of such tests should be encouraged as an opportunity for to engage people in the area of genetics, and hopeful that such engagement in any genetic testing will lead to better adoption of genetics into healthcare. Some are concerned about the proliferation of these tests and believe that they may cause more harm than good by blurring the lines between medicine and entertainment, leading to misinformed health decisions, compromising privacy, and creating new and unanticipated conflict for psychosocial family dynamics.

Our field is small with only about 4,000 genetic counselors nationwide. We are all only separated by only a degree or two of separation. A tight-knit community. So it is not surprising that with our profession expanding in so many directions, that we are experiencing some tension and growing pains with these emerging issues.

Whether we believe that consumer genomics is something to be feared or embraced, these tests are out there, people are using them, and it is crucial that we adapt to be able to help the public, our patients, and each other navigate this new terrain.

Do you see consumer genomics as an area that we should encourage, participate in, and guide?  Or should genetic counselors discourage the use of these tests, both on an individual patient level and in policy?  How do you see us adapting to the brave new world of consumer genomics?  

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