Tag Archives: genetic testing

When Numbers Do Not Tell The Tale: A Tribute To My Friend


Holly Osman 1959-2013

There is an emotional toughness one must have, working with cancer patients.  Oncologists tend to be pretty well-armored.  You don’t, for example, expect the head of Clinical Genetic Services at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to get emotional when a student asks a question about surveillance after prophylactic mastectomy.  So it was a surprise when Dr. Robson paused, and raised his eyes, with a blank expression that might have been masking tears.  “I used to say no more surveillance was necessary,” he said.  “But then I had a patient who rocked my world.”

Sitting in the audience, a chill ran down my spine.  You see, I knew her too.  Not as a counselor but as a friend.  A BRCA 1 mutation ran in her family.  She had tested positive for it years earlier, so after she had her beloved Sarah and Eric she did the surgery – smiled her way through it, no problems, no complaints, no second guesses.  “No big deal,” she said, with a smile that dared you to doubt her.  She was going to get the gift her own mother was denied: a little more time.  Time to watch her kids grow up, get married, have children of their own.

It’s never an easy business telling women to cut off their healthy breasts and put themselves into an early menopause.  No matter how deeply you believe in what you are offering, these are hard conversations to have.  But it wouldn’t have been hard with Holly.  She would have smiled from ear to ear and waved away all the negatives with a flutter of her left hand.  She was brave like that, and certain.

If your prior risk of breast cancer is 85%, and a mastectomy removes 98% of the breast tissue, your posterior risk should be approximately 3%.  That’s a risk reduction of 96.5%.  Wonderful numbers — but only numbers.  Numbers didn’t matter when Holly was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004.  Or when it came back in 2006 (stage four, incurable).  I spoke to Dr. Robson and one of the genetic counselors from MSKCC after the lecture.  “I know Holly too,” I said.  There was pain in their faces.  “She did everything right.  It’s so unfair.”

“It’s not just that,” said the counselor.  “She is the nicest person.  Whenever someone really needs support we have them talk to Holly.  She never says no.”

What can I tell you about Holly Osman?  She would not forgive me if I did not describe her as happy and successful.  A great family.  A husband who adores her.  Two wonderful kids – almost adults now.  Her daughter looks just like her, but with a hell of a lot more attitude, and Holly loved that.  She loved it when her kids were independent and she loved it when they needed her.  Her son is ridiculous: handsome, smart, poised and kind.  ‘Screw up a little,’ you want to say.  Stop making the rest of us look bad.

If I had to pick one word for Holly it would be effortless.  Some of us clean up nicely, but Holly looked great all the time, in a classic way that required no adornment. Roll her out of bed at 3 AM, and she would still be beautiful.  And effortless wasn’t just her style, it was her way of being – ask her how things were going and she said “great!”  You could try and empower her to complain a bit — good luck with that.  Holly wasn’t very interested in complaining — which was annoying for me.  I myself would have whined.  Not Holly.  Her life was SO fabulous.  Her doctors were SO great.  If you asked her about how treatment was going she would look blank for a moment, as though she didn’t remember what you were talking about.  She had this look that seemed to say, ‘Oh yes, chemo – I had forgotten.’  Did she need anything?  Could I drive carpool for her this week?  “Why?” Holly said.

She was the luckiest person in the world.  She insisted on that right until the last moment, until last Friday, the day she died, in Holly-fashion, quietly and without drama, nestled in the heart of the family she had nurtured on every level imaginable.  I don’t know; maybe she was the luckiest person in the world.  I can tell you that the rest of us left behind feel a little bit less lucky now.

She did have a lot of luck, it’s just that some of it was bad.  As a friend who happened to be a genetic counselor, I always felt a little guilty, as though we had let her down.  We counselors love the safety of numbers, of facts, of things we know.  We told her the truth, it just wasn’t her truth.  As predictive testing goes, BRCA analysis is one of the best.  It has, as we say, clinical validity and clinical utility.  Holly understood that too; even after her own diagnosis she counseled a much-adored younger sister to have the same surgery, the one that had failed to save her.  Holly’s story is not a repudiation of what we have to offer.  It is a reminder of the limitations of the fortune-teller’s art.  Percentages are true only for epidemiologists, while people live out their lives as a series of n=1 experiments.  There is an arrogance in the certainty of numbers that will always be undone by the stochastic process that is life.

Here’s how I know: I had a friend who rocked my world.

Rest in peace, Holls.  Rest in peace.


Filed under Laura Hercher


James Watson is many things – geneticist, Nobel laureate, agent provocateur – but in the realm of psychiatry he is first and foremost the parent of a son with schizophrenia.  So when he spoke in 2007 at the World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics, it was as a family member, albeit a family member with an unusually good grasp of the science.  And it was as a family member that he exhorted the scientists in the audience to keep up the good work, so that “someday we could identify those individuals destined to suffer from mental illness in utero, and weed them out.”

How often do you hear an audible gasp in the midst of a plenary talk?  The dismay and the indignation were palpable.  Researchers throughout the day interrupted their talks on GWAS to express in the strongest possible language that the goal of their work was to understand the pathophysiology of the disease and perhaps to aid in diagnosis – not to provide pre-symptomatic risk  assessment and not – no, never – not to be used prenatally.

“But if this is what families want,” I asked one speaker later that day.  “How do you propose to restrict testing, once the means to test is available?”

“They can’t,” he replied.  “They must not.”

Ah.  Of course.  They must not – I will pass that along.

Five years later, it is not GWAS but whole exome sequencing and whole genome sequencing providing all the buzz at conferences.  Solving the diagnostic odyssey!  Revolutionizing cancer treatment!  Ushering in an era of personalized medicine!  It’s very exciting.  Prenatal testing is rarely mentioned, and then only in passing – while prognosticators sing happy songs of a not-so-far-off day when every baby will be sequenced at birth.

Sequenced at birth?  Will it even be necessary?  Maybe Mom and Dad have baby’s DNA already, on a hard drive or a memory stick or downloaded onto their cell phones along with the ultrasound pics.

This is not the genome sequencing story you are seeing in the papers or the blogs.  It’s not what researchers are excited about.  The ones we hear are all about science journalists getting their DNA decoded and setting off on odysseys of self-discovery that involve hours of consultation with clinical and academic superstars who donate their time. We hear about kids with strange constellations of symptoms finding answers after years of disappointment.  Those are heartwarming tales: anecdotal and difficult to imagine at scale, but hopeful and exciting nonetheless.  But there is another theme playing, in a minor key, and I hear it faintly, hidden beneath the violins and the trumpets.

I hear it, an unspoken question, when we debate the utility of genomic information.  What does to mean to say that information is actionable? (Prevention? Treatment? Cure?  Prenatally, there is only Yes or No.)  Can patients handle uncertainty?  (And what will we lose, when pregnancies are terminated just to be on the safe side?)  Doesn’t everyone have the right to know what is in their own DNA? (The information is available – why not use it?  What could possibly go wrong?)

Whatever tests are available postnatally will find their way into prenatal use.  The gateway technologies – PGD, cell-free fetal DNA testing – are in place. And there is no use saying, “they can’t, they won’t, they shouldn’t” because they can and they will – and sometimes they should.  There will be good uses too: success stories and disasters averted.  A blanket “no” is not an option, and granting anyone authority to pick and choose which uses are worthwhile vests altogether too much power in the hands of any one person, or profession, or bureaucratic entity.

The same tests can be done before or after birth, but the experience is entirely different.  Uncertainty after birth is an opportunity.  The least useful information is that which will absolutely come true, no matter what you do.  Uncertainty before birth is a crisis.  Anyone who has ever discussed a variant of uncertain significance with a pregnant mother can tell you that.  But what are the chances there will be developmental delay?  Are you certain that the heart will be affected? How sure are you that this means anything?  Not nearly sure enough.  Please understand that.

In general, notions of genetic determinism increase the likelihood that genomic testing will have negative consequences.  Fatalistic attitudes about the power of genes could lead people to overestimate the meaning of elevated risks and underestimate the meaning of reduced risks.  Anxiety, stress, missed mammograms – you have heard this before.  Shrug.  People are grown ups.  They will figure this out.  Information is power.

But we are in a whole new universe trying to reconcile underpowered and often misunderstood predictive testing in the context of prenatal use.  So please, in telling tales of all the wonderful things that genome sequencing will do, save space for a mention of what it cannot do.  Make sure they understand that there are great wide cracks in our crystal ball.  Do not oversell the value of genotype in the absence of phenotype.  Remember that in the end neither researchers nor physicians nor genetic counselors will dictate how this new technology will be used.  Others will make that call, and we will be in the choir, singing songs of praise laced with sorrow.

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Filed under Laura Hercher

Resistance Is Futile: A New Paradigm for Genetic Counseling?

For with this detection there arises new lines of approach in the field of preventive medicine, and the sociological consequences may be far-reaching.

– James V. Neel, from his 1948 plenary lecture, “The Detection of The Genetic Carriers of Hereditary Disease”, delivered at the first annual conference of the Human Genetics Society of America (which eventually changed its name to the American Society of Human Genetics)

The technical advances in genetic testing over the last 5 years have been stunning. Much of what I thought of as Not Going To Happen For A Long Time  has now happened yesterday. Along with these breakthroughs is the unstated but increasingly common suggestion that everyone should taste the fruit of testing in Gregor’s Genetic Garden of Eden.

In the old days (like a year or two ago) only a small portion of the patient population were thought to be candidates for genetic testing, those for whom it made medical sense and who were emotionally ready for the ramifications of the knowledge. Genetic counselors used their skills to help patients select the appropriate test and to guide them through the clinically, emotionally, and financially complicated decision-making process. Some chose to undergo testing while others delayed or declined it. We did not really care what patients chose to do; our role was to go through the wringer with them.

Now, though, this model of genetic testing only for the select few may be replaced in the near future by the idea that everyone – healthy, sick, high risk, low risk – should have genetic testing. Population scale genetic testing, with its promises of personally tailored medical care and better health outcomes, assumes that everyone – except for a handful of Luddites, people who do not own mobile phones or have Twitter accounts, Flower Children, and conspiracy theorists – will incorporate DNA into their routine medical care. Genetic testing becomes a foregone conclusion, not an ethically and emotionally weighty matter to be carefully explored and considered. If everyone has a genetic test and everyone carries gene mutations, doesn’t that make everyone a patient?

Think I am overstating my case? Perhaps. Then again, recall the many professional and popular articles you have read that are variations on this theme: The time is near when you will walk into your doctor’s office with an inexpensive DNA Chip that contains your entire genome and that will guide your doctor in choosing the best medications for you and select the most effective screening tests. You will live to be 100, enjoy a lusty sex life, and have healthy children. While the $1000 genome may not be a shining example of truth in advertising, affordable genetic testing is upon us.

A second case in point is the introduction of cheap carrier testing for a huge number of mostly obscure genetic conditions, what has come to be called Universal Carrier Screening. I will risk stating the obvious and point out that the word “universal” implies that the test is for everyone. At $99, it is hard to say no.

A third case in point is newborn screening, which is as close as it gets to universal genetic testing. The conditions screened for with those heel sticks continues to increase but the primary justification is not “treatment before symptoms develop.” Rather, testing is predicated on reducing the number of families caught in The Diagnostic Odyssey, that emotionally and financially draining parental journey to find out what medical disorder their child may have. Based on this premise, there is no logical stopping point for including disorders in a newborn panel. Every genetic disease is a potential source of a diagnostic odyssey. In fact, the rarer the syndrome, the better it is for inclusion in newborn screening since uncommon conditions are less likely to be diagnosed by most practitioners.

Another area of pervasive genetic testing is the recommendation for universal fetal aneuploidy screening during pregnancy, made even more tempting by high detection/low false positive non-invasive tests.

Genetic screening is offered to everyone prior to conception, during pregnancy, and at birth. Testing all adults allows the rest of the camel into the tent.

Genetic counselors are not the driving force behind universal genetic testing, although undoubtedly we have some complicated role. As I have discussed elsewhere, we probably have less influence on patients’ decisions than we  think. Larger social, economic, and ethical forces are at play, in much the same way that the introduction of amniocentesis, newborn and carrier screening, and the birth of the genetic counseling profession were all products of their times.

The role of genetic counseling when it comes to genetic testing, then, may no longer be primarily to help patients make decisions. Instead, genetic counselors may become Phenotype Counselors who interpret and integrate results of genetic tests that were run – and possibly chosen through online services – before patients walked into our offices.

Ilana Löwy’s book “Preventive Strikes: Women, Precancer, and Prophylactic Surgery”

If I am right, genetic counselors are likely to encounter controversies and dilemmas. Ethical values like nondirectiveness and autonomy become less forceful if individually tailored health strategies can help prevent or attenuate serious illness. Think of how many  oncologists consider their high risk cancer patients crazy for not having BRCA testing or believe that known BRCA mutation carriers are making poor choices for not undergoing risk-reducing surgeries.

Eugenic concerns, the voice and dignity of the disability community, the psychological sequelae of coping with test results, and worries about the other downsides of genetic testing may be pushed to the wayside by the power of the still unproven assumption that medical spending will become more cost-effective, clinical decisions will be wiser, and everyone will be healthier if their genomes are analyzed. In fact, people with disabilities themselves will likely see some treatment and diagnostic benefits from genomic testing. And because laboratories and lab-based counselors will likely play critical roles, defining and protecting against conflict of interest becomes even more critical and complex.

Both good and bad will come out of universal DNA testing, though it is difficult to predict what measure of each. But so much genetic information available on so many people must give one pause. The history of genetics demonstrates that every advance in genetics is fraught with social complexity and dangers. We may have a more sophisticated knowledge of genetics than our predecessors, but we are neither wiser nor more ethical.

I  close by reminding you that knowing our past helps us better understand why we are here and what may happen if we go there. To that end, let me bring to your attention two recently published books about the history of genetic counseling and the history of medical genetics: Telling Genes: The Story of Genetic Counseling in America by Alex Stern (The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2012) and The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine by Nathaniel Comfort (Yale Univ. Press, 2012). The authors, my good friends and colleagues, provide an informed and critical historical understanding of  genetic counseling and genetic medicine. Everyone should read these books. It will do your souls – and your counseling philosophy – good.


Filed under Robert Resta

Behind the scenes decision-making: Choosing labs

GeneTests currently lists 593 laboratories testing for 2,305 diseases —  2,040 clinically based and 265 research based. Check out their chart of lab and test growth over the years 1993-2009.

With this exponential growth of labs and tests with various panels offering different sensitivities for different conditions, how does one choose a lab and how does one choose certain panels over others? In my primarily prenatal role in an academic university hospital, genetic testing is very accessible to my patients as there is patient interest, insurance coverage, and private monies to really make it happen. So, access is no longer the primary issue I deal with and the patients look to me as their genetic counselor to determine which lab offers “the best” test that is most up-to-date. How quickly do we modify what we offer? How does your center choose and vet which labs to use?

Labs are always sending out notices of new panels, sending representatives to educate us about their tests. But, how quickly do you start offering a new panel once you have been educated about it?

Here are some things I think seem to dictate how I choose a lab, in no particular order:

1. What is the sensitivity and specificity of the test?

2. Does the lab provide pre-verification of insurance benefits?

3. Is the customer service accessible and available to strategize regarding the testing plan i.e. are there genetic counselors and laboratory directors that I can speak with?

4. Does this lab have a great deal of experience working with this gene or disease?

5.  How quickly do they report their results? Will they expedite prenatal cases?

6. Is the format of their reports accessible?

7. Do they have educational materials about their tests for providers? For patients?

8. Are there logistical shipping issues/costs?

9. For NYS, do I need a permit?

All these things weigh differently in every case, depending on the needs of the patient. But, patients do not always know what is out there or what they need – it can become our job to make the best laboratory choices to fit their needs. Sometimes, this is a challenge for me. And sometimes, I feel like a laboratory sales representative.

It seems to me that if we do not offer a test, it essentially does not exist to a patient. Sometimes patients do not know they want a test out there simply because they do not know about it.

So, when a new panel of tests comes out, how does your center decide what to offer the patients? Is there a departmental debate? Does it have to meet certain internal requirements?

When faced with a handful of lab options sequencing the same gene, how do you chose the lab?

Please share you thoughts and strategies regarding this. I am truly very curious.


Filed under Jessica Giordano

Genetic tests now sold in drugstores! Or not.

as posted on herNaturehisNurture

Well, it has been quite a week in the world of genetic testing! For those who haven’t been following the gene drama (or haven’t been able to keep up), I’ve provided a summary of the week’s events below.

Monday, May 10 Pathway Genomics’ test is considered a ‘device’ by FDA

The FDA Office of In Vitro Diagnostic Device Evaluation and Safety, sends a letter to James Plante, CEO of DTC company Pathway Genomics Corporation, pointing out that Pathway’s “Genetics Health Report” product appears to meet the definition of “device,” and therefore requires an FDA clearance/approval number. They request that their approval number be provided. [Of note, Pathway DTC genomic testing has been available online since July 2009].

Tuesday, May 11 Washington Post runs story about gene tests being sold in drugstores

The Washington post runs the story that personal genomic testing company Pathway Genomics was getting set to offer their genetic testing kits at Walgreen drugstores across the country.

Beginning Friday, shoppers in search of toothpaste, deodorant and laxatives at more than 6,000 drugstores across the nation will be able to pick up something new: a test to scan their genes for a propensity for Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer, diabetes and other ailments.

The NSGC promptly responds, issuing this Policy Statement (pdf):

“Distributing genetic testing through pharmacies will expose more people to its availability. However, people should first meet with a genetic counselor to determine whether genetic testing is right for them and to prepare for what they might learn,” said Elizabeth Kearney, NSGC’s president.

Daniel Vorhaus of the Genomics Law Report was quick to comment on the news, and published an impressive compilation of media and blogger reactions to the developing story.

Wednesday, May 12 Walgreens revokes decision to sell Pathway’s test in stores

Media outlets continue to follow the story, and FDA officials become increasingly vocal about their lack of support for the retail genetic test kit. Late Wednesday night, news breaks that Walgreens has decided they are revoking their decision to stock the genetic testing kits in stores.

In a statement, Michael Polzin, a Walgreen spokesman said, “in light of the FDA contacting Pathway Genomics about its genetic test kit and anticipated ongoing discussions between the two parties, we’ve elected not to move forward with offering the Pathway product to our customers until we have further clarity on this matter.”

Thursday, May 13 Pathway Genomics and others respond

Pathway Genomics issues a press statement acknowledging the weeks events and the genetic counselling services they provide:

We respect and understand Walgreens’ decision and we are communicating with the FDA about the Pathway Genomics InsightTM collection kit…We believe it is very important that anyone interested in a personal genetic test understand the information that will be contained in his or her report. That is why we have on staff Board certified/eligible physicians and genetic counselors that are available to speak with customers about their reports. We also encourage anyone considering purchasing a Pathway product to speak with our counselors.

Others continue to weigh in on the issue. Notably, Dan Vorhaus helps elucidate some of the complex issues surrounding regulation of direct-to-consumer gene testing and points out that personal genome tests are already available through retail outlets, such as 23andMe tests being sold through Amazon.com. The NSGC public policy blog provides a good summary of the issue from a genetic counselor perspective.

Friday, May 14

So here we are, Friday morning, the day that Pathway’s tests were scheduled to hit drugstore shelves. But instead of curious consumers flocking (or not flocking) to their local Walgreens, we are instead right back in the middle of a DTC regulation debate. A debate that seems to me to be incredibly reminiscent of June 2008, when the California department of Public Health issued “cease and desist” orders against 13 DTC companies. I look forward to watching how this plays out.


Beyond the actual events of this week, what has been so incredible to me is the quick response and coverage of this story within the genetic counseling community. Because I don’t work in a position where I can monitor twitter, I have relied heavily on the NSGC listserv this week in keeping up on the breaking news. So a big thank you to all those who kept the community up-to-date using this private forum. And I’m impressed with the speed at which the NSGC position statement and public policy blog post were put together. If this same situation had occurred a year ago, I highly doubt the public response from the GC community would not have been so urgent or visible.

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Filed under Allie Janson Hazell

The Kids Are Alright: Re-thinking Genetic Testing of Children

It seems like that would better to do that [genetic carrier testing] earlier, you know even before, just so that it was always. …. It’s like if you’re like adopted. It seems like it would be better to know you’re adopted your whole life than to just have a day when you’re 13 and your parents sit you down and tell you you’re adopted. That would be terrible. – Teenage Fragile X Carrier, quoted in a study of fragile X carriers

A sacred and often unchallenged ethical belief in the medical genetics community is that carrier testing should be limited to adults, except in diseases like familial adenomatous polyposis where the results have implications for the medical care of young children. It is easy to take the moral high ground here – we should respect the autonomy of young people until they are mature enough to make their own decisions as adults. End of story.

Implicit in this belief are the assumptions that teens are not mature enough to make major life decisions, and more subtly, that health professionals know better than parents what is in the best interests of their children.

Allyn McConkie-Rosell and her co-authors, in a recent issue of the American Journal of Medical Genetics, challenge this belief with a very interesting quantitative and qualitative study of fragile X carrier testing among at-risk teenage girls. The vast majority (51/53) of these girls felt that carrier testing should not be delayed until 18 years of age if the child and family want testing. In reading the comments of these young girls, it is quite clear that teenage minds are capable of thoughtful deliberation about emotionally and medically complicated matters. The belief that teens are incapable of mature thought and philosophical complexity is at best unproven and at worst could lead to long term psychological issues among teens denied testing.

Of course, parents or guardians should have an active role in initiating such requests. They understand their children far better than we ever will. If genetic counselors cut off parents’ requests for testing their children with “Sorry, we will not do it because it is ethically unjustifiable and against clinic policy” it will only result in angry and frustrated families. Not a very good counseling experience, to say the least. The history of professional advice to parents makes it clear that parents rather than professionals are usually more likely to make better parenting decisions.

Sometime, though, parents will want their children tested for the wrong reasons, such as a misperception that the test results will affect medical care of their teen, or, more commonly in my experience, driven by their own guilt and anxiety about possibly having “given” a mutated gene to their children. These situations call for genetic counselors’ best educational and counseling skills to help parents clarify what is driving their requests to ensure that genetic testing is in the best interests of the parents, their children, and their families. And parent and child should both agree on whether or not to be tested.

This is an area that is begging for more research, in the form of case studies and larger investigations. One particularly fruitful group to study prospectively would be fetuses and newborns whose carrier status is incidentally identified during prenatal diagnosis (e.g., a fetus tested for Tay-Sachs that proves to be a carrier) or newborn screening (e.g., cystic fibrosis heterozygotes detected during testing for homozygotes).

In my view, genetic testing should be available to teenagers  who desire it, after genetic counseling of children and parents. No doubt some of you will strongly disagree with me. I am interested in hearing your counter-arguments and thoughts. My favorite people, those who I find most intriguing and rewarding, are those who can make me change my mind.


Filed under Robert Resta