Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Best Predictive Health Ethics Blogs - May 2008

It was a busy month for predictive health news: the president signed GINA, Francis Collins announced his eminent retirement, bloggers reported from important conferences at Case Western and Cold Spring Harbor, and Google announced the debut of Google Health. These events, and others, are reflected in this month's edition of the best blogs on the ethical issues of predictive health.

Are you diseased? Pre-diseased? Potentially diseased? Greg Dahlmann, 6 May 2008.
In this insightful post, Dahlmann examines how predictive health is changing our concept of disease. When, exactly, does increased risk = illness? Dahlmann writes:

So we're moving from the concept of disease as a state of impaired function to it representing particular sets of probabilities. In the past you were sick when you had a heart attack. Today, you're sick -- or pre-sick, perhaps -- when you have high cholesterol. What about when it's possible to identify constellations of genes that significantly increase your chances of having high cholesterol, or a heart attack. Would that be considered a disease?

Also see Dahlmann's follow up post on "previvors": Blood Matters. Greg Dahlmann, 11 May 2008.

NHGRI Director Francis Collins to Step Down on August 1. Hsien-Hsien Lei, Eye on DNA. 28 May 2008.
Lei shares the news the Francis Collins will retire from his post this summer and that Alan E. Guttmacher will become acting director. Lei also some thoughts on Collins' book The Language of God.

In All Fairness. Fred Trotter, Fred Trotter: My life and thoughts, often about FOSS in medicine. 23 May 2008.
Following the news coverage on the release of Google Health, Fred Trotter weighs in on the privacy questions. Trotter argues that Google is not a health care provider and is, therefore, not covered by HIPAA. He writes:

Both Google Health and HealthVault are designed to make the process of dissemination of your health information to people you want them to be disseminated to easier. Are they doing that in a secure, privacy respecting way? Excellent question; fodder for further posts. Should they be covered by the same laws that cover your healthcare providers? No.

Workman's Compensation, Stereotypes and GATTACA. Steve Murphy, Gene Sherpas: Personalized Medicine and You. 10 May 2008.
Murphy addresses a few of the potential social consequences of predictive medicine, by examining the following scenario:

Young person goes to 23andME/Navigenics/ETC (They just may add this immediately)....gets predictive testing indicating that he is at a 300 fold increased risk of herniating a disc in his back. Avoids manual labor (plays video games all day) never herniates the disc. Did we do society a service?

23andMe, deCODEme and Navigenics at Cold Spring Harbor. Daniel MacArthur, Genetic Future. 9 May 2008.
MacArthur reports, first hand, from the "Biology of Genomes" meeting at Cold Spring Harbor. In addition to the big players in the consumer genomics movement, the speakers at the event included some ethics and policy experts, like Kathy Hudson from Johns Hopkins. Hudson, MacArthur notes, "responded to the problem of patients being given data of very limited predictive value with a very sensible solution: 'In the absence of demonstrable harm, the default should be to provide the information.'"

Genetic testing ethics - consent forms becoming incomprehensible. Elaine Warburton, Genetics and Health. 7 May 2008.
Warburton covers the Translating ELSI, Ethical Legal Social Implications of Human Genetics Research conference at Case Western University in Cleveland. In this entry she reports on Laura Beskow's comments regarding informed consent and the attitudes and concerns of research participants. Also see Warburton's related coverage of pediatric research ethics discussions at the conference in her post: Genetic Ethics - testing and storing our kids’ DNA. Genetics and Health. 7 May 2008.

The FDA ditches the Declaration of Helsinki. Stuart Rennie, Global Bioethics Blog. 6 May 2008.
Stuart Rennie of Global Bioethics Blog examines the implications of the FDA's decision to abandon the Declaration of Helsinki. While Rennie focuses on the potential impact of this decision on US research overseas, and not specifically on predictive health research, this decision may have far reaching consequences on clinical trials of any sort. Rennie concludes with the following verdict: "the decision would seem to encourage pharmaceutical companies to cut ethical corners when working abroad".

GINA Series: Irrational Bureaucratic Risk Abhorrence [Page 1]. Andrew Yates, Think Gene. 24 May 2008.
This is the first post of a (thus far) four part series on GINA. Each post begins with the introduction:

Recently, President Bush signed GINA, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, into law. GINA makes it illegal for employers or health insurers to discriminate based on genetics. Virtually the entire genetics community has lauds this legislation, yet few have written why it's wrong that employers and services review objective facts to make decisions. … “It’s not fair…” but why?

The Puzzling Consensus in Favor of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. Eric Posner, The University of Chicago Law School Faculty Blog. 6 May 2008.
In what may be the most influential post covered in this edition of the best predictive health ethics blogs, Chicago Law professor Eric Posner examines the GINA and asks some compelling questions:

Should the insurance company be permitted to offer the cheap insurance policy only to people who obtain a doctor's certification that a genetic test shows that they belong to the low-risk group? If you think that insurers should be able to discriminate on the basis of visible markers and on the basis of simple doctors' tests for the presence of dangerous diseases, then you should think they should be able to discriminate on the basis of genetic tests. There is no morally relevant distinction between looking at a person's blood for the evidence of infection and looking at his DNA for evidence of susceptibility to a disease. ... The only explanation for the enthusiasm for GINA is that there is an inchoate feeling among people that there is something wrong with the way the insurance market operates.

Medical Genetics Is Not Eugenics. Gabriella Coleman ("biella"), What Sorts of People. 16 May 2008.
Coleman responds to Ruth Cowan’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Medical Genetics Is Not Eugenics”. Although Cowan sees little value in thinking about the similarities of modern medical genetics and the mid-century eugenics movement, Coleman cautions:

Even if, as [Cowan] rightly states that genetic testing is oriented primarily toward easing human suffering, genetic testing is still entangled with fraught ethical questions about what types of life we value, what is acceptable human life, and what is not—the very sorts of questions central to eugenics.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

GINA, The Bad News: Adverse Selection

This is the second post in a series of posts in which I share what I see as the ups and downs of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA or H.R. 493).

Although the legislation will hopefully do much to encourage research and protect predictive health patients, GINA is not all roses. The legislation has numerous critics who have good reasons to be critical. For starters, it sets the stage for adverse selection to occur in the health insurance industry.

Adverse selection happens when an information gap emerges between the beneficiary and the insurer; if the beneficiary knows much more than the insurer, then the insurer is unable to accurately assess the beneficiary’s risk. This information imbalance results in more claims being made than the insurer reasonably predicted. GINA facilitates this phenomenon by allowing beneficiaries access to genetic information, but denying it to insurers. If, for example, a beneficiary finds out from a genetic test that he has a significantly increased risk of developing prostate cancer, he would use that information in deciding whether or not to purchase insurance, but the insurer would be unaware of that increased risk in deciding in which group the individual should be placed, what rate he should be charged, etc.

This is potentially a big problem in the insurance industry, because insurers need to be able to accurately determine risk in order to prevent claims exceeding predicted levels. In the long run, inaccurate risk predictions in the industry will result in rate hikes, and rate hikes will drive healthier participants out of groups. In a the worst case scenario, this could start a downward spiral in the direction of group or insurer insolvency. - Sam Beasley

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Good News: GINA; The Bad News ... ?

A few weeks ago, congress passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), a much anticipated piece of legislation, nearly thirteen years in the making. Since the first version of the bill prohibiting genetic discrimination was introduced in Congress in 1995, the legislation has received significant bipartisan support and support from both the Clinton and Bush White Houses. Until recently, however, even in the face of all of that support, just a few members of Congress were able to block the legislation's progress. An agreement has finally been reached, and GINA is now the law of the land; it was signed by President Bush on Wednesday, May 21st.

Regular readers of PredictER Blog know that we have been following GINA; now that it has been signed, it's time to kick the tires and to see what we've got. This is the first of a series of posts in which I share what I see as the ups and downs of this legislation. I'll alternate between the good news and the bad news and conclude with an overall "thumbs up" or "thumbs down". For this post, some good news:

GINA really is a big deal, in the legislative sense. It provides (at least in theory) significant protection from discrimination based upon genetic information in the employment and health insurance contexts. Studies by the NIH and other institutions have revealed that the vast majority of the American public is afraid of being discriminated against in these arenas and believes that it would be wrong for employers and insurers to do so. Furthermore, additional studies have revealed that a significant number of people who would be likely to benefit medically from genetic tests choose to forgo them for fear that they will lose their job, or health care coverage depending upon the results. Along the same lines, many people are choosing not to participate in important research that requires subjects to undergo genetic testing out of fear of discrimination. Clearly, then, GINA should help to allay public apprehensions and to encourage both the pace of research and the practice of personalized medicine.

But … stay tuned for the "bad news". – Sam Beasley

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Retirement and Risk: Betting on Your Genes?

Jane Sarasohn-Kahn of Health Populi points to an interesting report from the Society of Actuaries. In a survey of Americans age 45 to 80 both pre-retirees and current retirees are most concerned about the cost of health care in retirement. Pre-retirees worry about paying for "adequate care" and current retirees worry about paying for "long-term care". (These do not seem like mutually exclusive categories to me, but maybe I need to re-read the document: Understanding and Managing the Risks of Retirement: 2007 Risks and Process of Retirement Survey Report.) From a predictive health perspective, I wonder how personalized genetic information might change the risk perceptions and behaviors of those making retirement plans. Would, for example, a pre-retiring employee opt to work longer after acquiring a genetic test indicating an increased risk for a specific kind of cancer? If such a pre-retiree also learned that the peek incidence for almost all cancers is in late middle age and tapers off after about 70 years of age, they might work an extra decade just to be more certain that cancer wasn't "in the cards". On the other hand, would current retirees with genetic information that suggested a long (if not painless) lifespan purchase more aggressive insurance for long-term care? - J.O.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dr Watson's Genetic Counselor: Witty or Insulting?

Today's issue of Nature [subscription required] includes a letter responding to Wheeler DA, et al. The complete genome of an individual by massively parallel DNA sequencing. Nature 452, 872-876 (17 April 2008) | doi:10.1038/nature06884. The author of the response, a genetic counselor, lifts a layer off the science publishing hype that surrounds anything about the human genome in this era. Also see the very insightful and witty table comparing two potential personal genome and genetic counseling clients: "Dr. Watson" and a "lay patient".

Here's a sample:

- Dr. Watson: Thinks the $1 million cost is a good deal - Lay Patient: Worried about the cost of a - consultation
- Dr. Watson: Brings in sequence data on a hard drive - Lay Patient: Brings in records about sinus infections
- Dr. Watson: Chose to have Apo-E sequence redacted - Lay Patient: Expects to learn blood type
- Dr. Watson: Shares 1.68 million SNPs with Craig Venter - Lay Patient: Googles SNPs to find out who they are

Well said! But gee, the "lay patient" must be a real dimwit ... if I ever need a genetic counselor, I'm going to do my homework first! - J.O.

Source: Roche MI. A case of genetic counselling for Dr Watson. Nature 453, 281 (15 May 2008) | doi:10.1038/453281a; Published online 14 May 2008.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Resource Recommendation: NIH Points to Consider - GWAS and IRBs

Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS): NIH Points to Consider for IRBs and Institutions in their Review of Data Submission Plans for Institutional Certifications Under NIH's Policy for Sharing of Data Obtained in NIH Supported or Conducted Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS) 12 November 2007. Accessed 12 May 2008 from:

These guidelines go beyond the regulatory requirements of 45 CFR part 46 as outlined by the OHRP's 2004 policy guidance regarding privacy and biobanks (see NOT-OD-05-020 and In addition to addressing the NIH's recent emphasis on open-access publication in the context of genomic research, this document provides a de facto outline of the many consent, privacy, and disclosure issues in biobank research. Although it is a must read for anyone conducting or reviewing NIH supported GWAS research, it is also an excellent resource to skim when thinking about the ethical issues and risks of benefit sharing and biobank research.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Translating ELSI – From a Conference at Case Western to the World

An exciting conference occurred last week in Cleveland, Ohio on the past, present, and future of research into the ethical, legal, and social implications genetics (so-called "ELSI" research). If the large number of interesting presentations at this conference is any indication, the field is flourishing. Although I saw relatively few presentations (I was only there for part of the conference), the discussions, the turnout, and the book of abstracts show the rigor and creative energy of a thriving, international group of scholars.

As part of a panel on Saturday morning (May 3rd), I presented a short talk entitled "PredictER: Indiana University's Experience in Translating Predictive Health Ethics Research into Practice". The presentation covered the work that we've been doing at the IU Center for Bioethics on the ethical and legal aspects of predictive health research. Other speakers in the same session described similar work under way in Kyoto, Japan and in Newfoundland, Canada. Genetics is truly a global field, and, thus, so is the project of examining the ethical, legal and social implications of the science and medicine. If we want to insure the ethical practice of genetic science and the equitable sharing of its benefits, the global participation exemplified by the work at this conference, must become a common feature in the investigation of the ELSI of predictive health research. – Peter H. Schwartz

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

One Year of PredictER Blog

PredictER Blog turns one today! To mark the date, here is a list of the 10 most popular posts:

1. HIPSA: The Health Information Privacy and Security Act of 2007 - Thursday, July 19, 2007

2. Texas: Your Boss, Your Medical Records and the Information Economy - Saturday, March 22, 2008

3. Get Your Genetic Test Results Online and Who Needs a Physician? – Katherine Drabiak, Thursday, November 15, 2007

4. Predictive Health Legislative Update: GINA, HIPSA and more ... - Monday, December 17, 2007

5. Smith-Lemli-Opitz Syndrome and a Florida “Wrongful Birth” Case - Wednesday, July 25, 2007

6. Biomedical Research Ethics 2.0: MySpace and Pediatrics - Tuesday, January 8, 2008

7. Minnesota and Genetic Privacy: Why the Rule of Law is Good for Research – Katherine Drabiak, Wednesday, September 26, 2007

8. Navigenics Enters Personal Genomics Game ... Meanwhile: "What's a SNP?" – Katie Carr, Wednesday, April 16, 2008

9. Health Risk Assessments in the Workplace: Clarian Health, Indianapolis. - Sunday, August 19, 2007

10. Newborn Screening: An Update on Minnesota – Katherine Drabiak, Friday, November 16, 2007