Monday, December 14, 2009

Minnesota Judge’s Dismissal of Newborn Blood Spot Case Misses the Mark

On November 24, 2009, Judge Marilyn Rosenbaum signed an order dismissing plaintiffs’ complaint with prejudice in the Bearder et al. v. Minnesota et al. (MDH) lawsuit. This dismissal quickly disposed of plaintiffs’ claims that MDH’s practices of retention and research use of newborn blood spots (NBS) conflicted with specific protections outlined in the Minnesota Genetic Privacy Act (GPA) and constituted violations of their childrens’ property and privacy interests.

Judge Rosenbaum responded to plaintiffs’ claim that MDH failed to comply with the GPA by ruling that the GPA does not even apply to MDH’s actions because:
  • NBS samples do not constitute genetic information; and
  • The statute contains reference that it will not apply if an express provision in the law exists.

The GPA clearly defines genetic information as:

  • “Information about an identifiable individual derived from the presence, absence, alternation, or mutation of a gene… which has been obtained from an analysis of the individual’s biological information or specimen” and
  • “Medical and biological information about a particular genetic condition that is or might be used to provide medical care to that individual.”

Judge Rosenbaum’s finding that NBS are not classified as genetic information ignores the plain language of the statute. NBS are collected to analyze the presence, absence, or mutation of a disease during the newborn screening process and used to obtain medical and biological information about a particular genetic condition so parents of newborns can make medical decisions accordingly. Thus, logic compels classifying NBS as genetic information.

Defendants argued that the newborn screening statute which states that the NBS and results of the screening tests “may be retained by the [MDH]” amounts to an express provision authorizing exemption from the GPA. Judge Rosenbaum’s agreement disregards the meaning of “express provision” and the substantive fact that the collection and temporary retention for screening purposes is distinct from the collection, retention, and use for additional research reasons. Accounting for this important division, the statute would have explicitly and distinctly contained a section authorizing additional retention and research use beyond the collection and retention for detection, treatment, and follow up of heritable and congenital disorders if the legislature intended.

Additionally, this interpretation ignores the purpose of the GPA as a means to limit collection of genetic information by a government entity.

The finding that this section of the newborn screening statute (“may be retained by the [MDH]”) constitutes an express provision allowing retention and research beyond the initial screening poses two additional dilemmas. First, it problematically ratifies blurring screening with additional retention and research. Second, Judge Rosenbaum’s finding ignores that the retention and research is not limited to the MDH but extends to its research partners such as the University of Minnesota, the Mayo Clinic, and the CDC.

Randall Knutson, attorney for the plaintiffs, responded:

“It is our hope to bring some legal guidance and common sense to DNA issues, including the storage and dissemination of genetic information by our government agencies. As it now stands, the State of Minnesota appears free to use and sell our genetic information, without us having any say in the matter. That is simply unacceptable, and we intend to continue to fight on to change this situation.”

Knutson plans to appeal Judge Rosenbaum’s decision.

--Katherine Drabiak-Syed

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Lawsuit Challenging Myriad’s BRCA1 and BRCA2 Patents Will Go Forward: Judge Rejects Defendants’ Attempts to Preclude Plaintiffs’ Day in Court

Association for Molecular Pathology v. United States Patent and Trademark Office, Civil Action No. 09-4515 RWS ((S.D.N.Y. 2009) known as the lawsuit against Myriad Genetics challenging its gene patents related to BRCA1 and BRCA2 will go forward.

On November 1, 2009 Judge Robert Sweet handed down an order denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss. In the 85 page order, Judge Sweet accepted many of plaintiffs’ arguments set forth in the complaint and accompanying affidavits, finding that the court may properly hear the case and plaintiffs may properly sue each defendant.

The court flatly rejected defendants’ assertion that plaintiffs could not use the court as an arena to challenge questions of patentability.

Judge Sweet declined to adopt defendants’ arguments that the existence of the Patent Act as a comprehensive statutory scheme demonstrates Congressional intent to provide an internal remedy and preclude judicial challenges of the nature in this suit. The court noted that despite the USPTO’s statutory scheme to address patent questions, it does not provide a comparable statutory framework to raise Constitutional concerns and provide remedy accordingly; thus, plaintiffs may still bring an action to enforce the asserted Constitutional rights.

The court’s arrival at this reasoning is closely connected to Judge Sweet’s lengthy description of why the plaintiffs’ allegations of Constitutional violations are adequate and why the Court will not grant defendants’ motions to dismiss. The order described plaintiffs’ assertions that Myriad’s patents in question grant Myriad ownership rights over products of nature, laws of nature, natural phenomena, abstract ideas, basic human knowledge, and thought, which would violate the First Amendment. Additionally, plaintiffs pled that Myriad’s ownership of the patents in question inhibited further research, which would violate of Article I, section 8, clause 8 of the Constitution that directs Congress (and by delegation, the USPTO) to promote the progress of science.

The court also rejected Myriad’s arguments that plaintiffs could not show Myriad acted affirmatively to enforce the patents or that plaintiffs undertook meaningful preparation to potentially infringe the patents.

Judge Sweet adopted facts set forth in plaintiffs’ complaint and affidavits describing how Myriad sent out cease and desist letters to researcher plaintiffs and initiated two actions against infringers, demonstrating Myriad’s affirmative actions and willingness to enforce the patents. Importantly, the court further noted that given the widespread knowledge of the breadth of Myriad’s claims and its willingness to enforce its patents, a court would likely find that infringement of the patents would be considered willful and result in treble damages- meaning a scientist attempting BRCA research could be subject to extraordinary damages above merely compensating Myriad for any monetary losses.

Additionally, Judge Sweet accepted the researcher plaintiffs’ assertions that they are ready, willing, and able to infringe the patent because they are prepared to advance BRCA research, and or offer testing, and could do so within a matter of weeks. The court also noted that the plaintiff women affected by breast or ovarian cancer could take advantage of testing alternatives to find another test covered by their insurance or obtain a second opinion (options currently denied to them because of Myriad’s patents) that would potentially classify them as contributory infringers, meaning they could also properly sue the defendants.

The case moves forward and the court will hear parties’ oral arguments on motions for summary judgment on January 21, 2010. At this hearing, the court will decide whether there are genuine issues of material fact in dispute that would preclude the court from ruling as a matter of law for one party. If Judge Sweet’s order is any indication, a multitude of problems exist that are ripe for a hearing, and in the near future this court could squarely address these contentious issues arising from gene sequence patents. Perhaps finally the judicial system could address both the USPTO's and Congress' failure to re-examine patentability standards for gene sequences and decide whether issuing gene patents run contrary to Constitutional and statutory requirements.

-Katherine Drabiak-Syed

Friday, November 20, 2009

Newborn Blood Spot Litigation Continues in Minnesota and Texas

The litigation occurring in Minnesota and Texas regarding the unauthorized retention and research use of newborn blood spots (NBS) continues, and has developed into respective battles seeking judicial recognition for a property and privacy interest in one’s genetic material from which governmental entities such as state health departments are not exempt.

In September 2009, the Minnesota district court heard the defendants’ motion to dismiss and motion for summary judgment in Bearder et al. v. Minnesota et al. (MDH). MDH argued that there are no genuine issues of material fact so the court could simply rule as a matter of law in its favor to exempt the application of the Minnesota Genetic Privacy statute to the state health department's activities as well as preclude any of the plaintiffs’ privacy claims. Following this interpretation, two active bills in the Minnesota House (HF 1341) and Senate (SF 1478) seek to alter Minnesota state law by creating a compliance exemption for the state health department.

According to Bearder et al.'s attorney Randall Knutson, the parties are waiting for the court’s ruling, which is scheduled for return before December 18, 2009. Plaintiffs contend that NBS are genetic information, individuals have a property and privacy interest in their DNA, both tort and Constitutional law protect these interests, and they seek to compel MDH’s compliance with the Minnesota Genetic Privacy Act.

Bearder et al.’s memorandum of law submitted to the court prior to the hearing developed concerns related to MDH’s continued noncompliance with the Minnesota Genetic Privacy Act. Mark McCann, Manager of Public Health Laboratory in the Newborn Screening Program testified before the Minnesota Senate that “the number of parents who have given consent to store…the residual dried blood spots with the Minnesota Department of Health is zero” and despite the Minnesota Genetic Privacy Law requiring that the MDH obtain parental consent for retention and research use, according to McCann, actually obtaining consent is not a current practice.

The memorandum also describes the intersection of problematic shortcomings related to parental requests for destruction, “de-identification,” and research sharing with outside entities such as MDH’s $6 million contract with the Mayo Clinic. According to plaintiffs’ affidavits, some parents were not even told that the specimens would be retained and used for genetic research purposes (undermining the ability to request their destruction) or their requests for destruction were not honored. MDH refers to its system of storing and sharing the NBS as “de-identified” but it provides linked and coded NBS to the Mayo Clinic, retains the key to re-link the specimens (meaning they are not in fact “de-identified,”) and admits there is no standardized procedure for this process.

In Texas, the companion case Beleno et al. v. Texas Department of State Health Services et al. (TDSHS) asserts that individuals have a fundamental privacy interest in their DNA, which exists even absent any statutory provision specifically recognizing genetic privacy. On September 22, 2009, the Texas district court judge denied TDSHS’s motion to dismiss, meaning the court would schedule a hearing for the merits of the case unless the parties arrived at an alternate settlement. The Texas Civil Rights Project which represents plaintiffs indicated that the parties are in settlement negotiations, but as of November 20, 2009, parties have yet to sign an agreement.

Even if parties reach a settlement, Beleno et al.’s arguments used in this case merit pause and further examination. In plaintiffs’ response to defendants’ motion to dismiss, Beleno et al. argue that the defendants committed unlawful and unreasonable seizure, because although parents may have consented to providing the NBS for screening tests, they did not consent to the retention and research use of NBS. Even if the NBS were de-identified, plaintiffs argue that TDSHS unlawfully seized the specimens if they did not obtain actual parental consent, highlighting that issues of consent and privacy are both distinct yet inextricably linked both in practice and legal analysis. Importantly, Beleno et al. also argue that passive storage even absent any additional research or sharing of NBS constitutes a per se violation of Constitutional and tort privacy principles given the fact that they contain deeply private medical and genetic information.

Independent of how these courts proceed, these two cases continue to ask:

  • Do, or should, we have a property or privacy interest arising from tort or Constitutional principles in our genetic material (here, in the form of NBS) that requires consent to transfer this interest?
  • Can we minimize the potential for future litigation simply by obtaining parental consent for retention and research use?
  • Would creating codified exemptions for state health departments deter or encourage privacy advocates from litigation?

-Katherine Drabiak-Syed

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Data Sharing and Privacy: In the News

Roughly one year after the NIH and The Wellcome Trust restricted access to genome-wide association studies [see: Modifications to Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS) Data Access (NIH, August 28, 2008 - PDF)], data sharing is back in the news. In August, researchers in Tel Aviv and Berkeley announced a new method of protecting the privacy of individuals in genetic research studies. In the press release, one of the authors, Eran Halperin, alludes to the PLoS Genetics paper that led to the NIH's data access modifications (Homer N, et al.). As Halperin sees it, the "knee-jerk response stymied potential breakthrough genetic research." Perhaps he hopes that the new privacy approach will re-open the doors of safe data sharing. Halperin's method (published in Nature Genetics) uses a likelihood ratio (LR) test to measure the risk of exposing a single individual within a data set. Ultimately, the LR test limits the number of SNPs shared and thereby decreases the chances of privacy losses. If you would like to give this method a try, the software is available online (with registration) at SECUREGENOME.

In related news, The Toronto International Data Release Workshop (Genome Canada, May 2009) recently recommended the "rapid release of prepublication data" to speed the pace of scientific discover. The recommendation was published in a special, data sharing edition of Nature. The Workshop cites the Human Genome Project as an example of how sharing data leads to public benefits: "This experience ultimately demonstrated that the broad and early availability of sequence data greatly benefited life sciences research by leading to many new insights and discoveries, including new information on 30 disease genes published prior to the draft sequence." In a note addressing the human subjects concerns, the Workshop acknowledges the privacy risks: "Data about human subjects participating in genetic and epidemiological research require particularly careful consideration owing to privacy-protection issues and the potential harms that could arise from misuse. ... [F]or clinical and genomic data that are associated with a unique, but not directly identifiable individual, access may be restricted."

Will these developments (a proposed technical solution to the privacy barrier and a reaffirmation of the social benefits of data sharing) encourage the NIH and The Wellcome Trust to reduce some of the restrictions on data sharing? (I’d say: not yet.) While the safety of data sharing may be increased with technical solutions, it seems unlikely that all privacy risks will be eliminated. After all, if I share something "private" with you (or with anyone else), it's not so "private" any more. At the same time, if data access is restricted (for example, by using smaller, "safer" data sets), the public benefit of sharing resources declines. Clearly, we are looking for a way to eat our cake and have it too; protecting the individual's privacy while sharing for common benefits. Perhaps we should ask ourselves, what are the risks that we are willing to impose on individuals for the benefit of the common good? As an individual, exactly how private is your privacy? And at what cost?


Homer N, et al. Resolving individuals contributing trace amounts of DNA to highly complex mixtures using high-density SNP genotyping microarrays. PLoS Genet. 2008 Aug 29;4(8):e1000167. PMID: 18769715

Sankararaman S, Obozinski G, Jordan MI, Halperin E. Genomic privacy and limits of individual detection in a pool. Nat Genet. 2009 Sep;41(9):965-7. Epub 2009 Aug 23. PMID: 19701190.

Toronto International Data Release Workshop Authors, et al. Prepublication data sharing. Nature. 2009 Sep 10;461(7261):168-70. PMID: 19741685.

Other Predictive Health Ethics News

Nikki Tait. Pan-European biobanking moves closer. Financial Times. September 16, 2009.

Michael Rugnetta and Whitney Kramer. Paving the Way for Personalized Medicine. Science Progress. September 14, 2009.

Daniel Vorhaus and Lawrence Moore. What happens when a personal genomics company goes bankrupt? Genetic Future. September 14, 2009.

Caroline Wright. HGC public consultation on DTC genetic testing services. PHG Foundation News. September 8, 2009.

Over Ninety Per Cent Of Pathologists Find Research Rules Too Complex. Medical News Today, September 8, 2009.

Jane E. Brody. Buyer beware of home DNA tests. The New York Times. August 31, 2009.

Brad Therrell, Harry Hannon, Don Bailey, et al. Considerations and Recommendations for a National Policy Regarding the Retention and Use of Dried Blood Spot Specimens after Newborn Screening. Genetic Alliance. August 21, 2009.

Turner Ray. Lack of Physician Education, Genetic Counseling Could Ruin Value Proposition of PGx Testing, Insurer Says. Genomeweb: Pharmacogenomics Reporter. August 12, 2009.

The Genetics and Public Policy Center. Center publishes new survey of state false advertising laws., August 11, 2009.
- J.O.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Critiquing HHS's Summary Recommendations on Newborn Blood Spots: Opt-Out is Not Optimal

On August 21, 2009 the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued “Considerations and Recommendations for a National Policy Regarding the Retention and Use of Dried Blood Spot Specimens after Newborn Screening” relating to storage and use of newborn blood spots (NBS). The agency recommendations discussed assurances of privacy and confidentiality for storage and advised that each state should disseminate policies that promote public trust, emphasize transparency, and encourage informed public participation. It promulgated seven recommendations, including: all states should have a policy in place to address NBS retention, use, and research access; states should provide educational materials to the public and expecting mothers on use and potential future uses; and states should adopt an opt-in or opt-out model if NBS are available for any process outside the screening process or internal screening test development.

However, parental attitudes and pending litigation in this area suggests that the agency’s goals to promote public trust and encourage public participation may not be achieved with these guidelines.

Tarini, et al.’s survey in Public Health Genomics examined parental willingness to permit NBS storage and research. If permission is obtained, 76.2% of parents were very or somewhat willing to permit use of NBS for research, but if permission was not obtained, only 28.2% of parents would be very or somewhat willing to permit use of NBS for research. These results show most parents will permit retention and use as long as they are asked, reiterating the importance of respecting a person’s autonomy and dignity to permit or refuse participation.

Two pending cases in Minnesota and Texas confirm the results of Tarini et al.’s study and demonstrate that collection, retention, and research use of NBS and associated PHI even if conducted or facilitated by the state department of health is biobanking research. Accordingly, it should be governed under the Common Rule and Privacy Rule, meaning actual consent is not only optimal but perhaps required.

In June 2009, Minnesota parents (Bearder, et al.) filed a civil complaint against the state of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH, et al.) for failing to comply with the Minnesota Genetic Privacy Act and continuing to store and use NBS without consent. The complaint contains a litany of claims, including violation of the Minnesota Genetic Privacy Act, eight tort claims, fundamental right claims, and government taking. Plaintiffs’ claims for intrusion into seclusion, fraud and misrepresentation, and government taking summarize the essence of the alleged injury:
  • A person has a privacy interest in his or her own blood (acting as guardian for the newborns’ blood) and the medical information that may be obtained from it;
  • The MDH intentionally omitted that the NBS was not taken solely for screening but would be retained and used, knew that parents would provide them NBS for the purpose of screening, and parents relied on these representations but would not have consented to providing MDH the NBS had they known; and
  • Blood and genetic information constitute a “valuable national resource” and a represent a “gold mine” for the state and affiliated researchers that the government cannot automatically appropriate even in the name of public health research.

In a prayer for relief, plaintiffs request damages as statutorily indicated, request an injunction, and a cease and desist order against MDH. Minnesota’s history confirms that NBS collection, retention, and research falls within its Genetic Privacy Act, meaning a separate consent is required for each activity; and importantly, that the research conducted or approved by the Minnesota Department of Health is not exempt from these requirements.

In Texas, parents (Beleno, et al.) filed a civil complaint in March 2009 against the Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS, et al.) claiming TDSHS has no legal authority to retain and use NBS without consent. Beleno et al. assert this practice violates the privacy principles as well as violates the prohibition against seizure. Plaintiffs request that the court order the destruction of all NBS stored without consent (around 4.2 million samples) since it began the practice in 2002 or obtain retroactive parental consent. Additionally, plaintiffs seek an order to compel TDSHS to disclose for what purposes the NBS have been used and financial transactions involving the NBS.

New legislation TX HB 1672 that implements a compromise by using an opt-out system was signed into law and will take effect September 2009. It remains to be seen whether all Texas parents will agree with this solution and how the court will address the issue of what to do with the 4.2 million NBS that were stored without consent.

If NBS constitute such a valuable resource, then it is incumbent on us to encourage transparency of state health departments’ intentions by educating parents on the importance of using NBS for research purposes, how the state plans to use them, and respect parents enough not to circumvent the law’s intent but actually obtain their consent. If not, parents could turn to the judicial system and potentially prevail, creating a costly and lengthy legal battle for the state health department as well as jeopardizing the current collection of NBS.

-Katherine Drabiak-Syed

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Children, Biobanks and Consent

In a recent policy forum published in the Science, ethicists argue in favor of a policy to recontact children once they reach "the age of consent" to seek permission for continued research on their DNA samples and data. The authors would make an exception for children with samples in disease-specific biobanks. As they see it, the therapeutic benefits of participation in the disease-specific biobank outweigh the risks to subject. While the authors acknowledge the difficulty of maintaining an active biobank while tracking samples and relocating subjects for adult consent, they point to the "long-term benefits of maintaining public trust in biomedical research".

In a related news story, Mats Hansson of Uppsala University in Sweden, Karen Maschke, of the Hastings Center, Ronald Green, director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College, and other ethicists comment on the Science policy forum; see: Child DNA donors should have their say.


Gurwitz D, Fortier I, Lunshof JE, Knoppers BM. Research ethics. Children and population biobanks. Science. 2009 Aug 14;325(5942):818-9. PMID: 19679798.

Dolgin E. Child DNA donors should have their say. Nature News. August 13, 2009. doi:10.1038/news.2009.819.

Other Predictive Health Ethics News

Ameer B, Krivoy N. Direct-to-Consumer/Patient Advertising of Genetic Testing: A Position Statement of the American College of Clinical Pharmacology. J Clin Pharmacol. 2009 Aug;49(8):886-8. PMID: 19602717.

Boddington P. The ethics and regulation of direct-to-consumer genetic testing. Genome Med. 2009 Jul 20;1(7):71. PMID: 19638186

Bowen DJ, Harris J, Jorgensen CM, Myers MF, Kuniyuki A. Socioeconomic Influences on the Effects of a Genetic Testing Direct-to-Consumer Marketing Campaign. Public Health Genomics. 2009 Jul 28. PMID: 19641293

Darnovsky M, Reynolds J. The battle to patent your genes: the meaning of the Myriad case. The American Interest [Online]. September-October, 2009.

Giordano J. Quo vadis? Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine - preserving the humanistic character of medicine in a biotechnological future. Philos Ethics Humanit Med. 2009 Aug 14;4(1):12. PMID: 19682382

Serrano-Delgado M, Novello-Garza BI, Valdez-Martinez E. Ethical issues relating to the banking of umbilical cord blood in Mexico. BMC Med Ethics. 2009 Aug 14;10(1):12. PMID: 19678958

Wade N. Genes tied to gap in treatment of Hepatitis C. The New York Times. August 16, 2009.

Wade N. Cost of decoding a genome is lowered. The New York Times. August 10, 2009.

Wright C. Understanding DTC gentic risk prediction services. PHG Foundation News. August 14, 2009.

Wright C. Update on genetic non-discrimination legistlation. PHG Foundation News. August 10, 2009.

- J.O.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

New German Law on Genetic Testing: More Than Just a German GINA

EuroGentest has recently posted an unofficial English translation of the recently passed and soon to be enacted German legislation, the Human genetic examination act (Genetic diaganosis act - GenDG) [PDF - 162 KB]. The new law addresses genetic examinations (including consent, duty to inform, counselling, and disclosure), genetic testing and insurance contracts, workplace issues (including discrimination), and criminal penalties (prison time, in some circumstances, and fines of up to EURO 300,000).

Hat tip: CanGeneTest e-Newsletter, August 3, 2009.

- J.O.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Direct-To-Consumer Baby Gender Mentor Test in a Three Year Stalemate

In 2005, news headlines excitedly shared the latest development in direct-to-consumer testing: the Baby Gender Mentor early prenatal gender detection test. Acu-Gen Biolab, Inc., a company based in Lowell, Massachusetts, claimed that as early as five weeks, pregnant women could use a simple finger-prick test to obtain a blood sample and send it to Acu-Gen who would use “established qPCR technology analysis” to determine their baby’s sex. Originally claiming their $275 test was “infallible” and 99.9% accurate with a 200% money back guarantee, many expectant women relying on Acu-Gen’s claims eagerly purchased the test.

Months later, numerous accusations surfaced relating to the accuracy of the test, Acu-Gen’s failure to honor the warranty policy, and more disturbingly, allegations that C.N. Wang, PhD, President of Acu-Gen, advised several women that the results of their gender detection test conflicted with their ultrasound results because their baby had chromosomal abnormalities or a fetal “defect.” As a result of this alleged medical advice, many women sought further testing and procedures to determine whether their baby did indeed have a chromosomal abnormality. In addition to enduring the tremendous anxiety caused by Wang’s statements, these women underwent additional procedures such as extra ultrasounds, amniocentesis, and chromosomal testing, accumulating costly and unnecessary expenses.

Why is this seemingly dated piece of news still an issue? Because it has yet to be resolved. Although, a prior vendor of the test no longer carries the product, The Baby Gender Mentor website still sells the potentially dangerously misleading early prenatal gender detection test.

In early 2006, New Jersey law firm Gainey & McKenna filed a class action law suit, Blumer, et. al. v. Acu-Gen Biolabs, Inc., et. al. on behalf of over 100 women who purchased the Baby Gender Mentor test, claiming among other things, that Wang and Acu-Gen’s deceptive advertising, misrepresentation of the test’s accuracy, and illusory guarantee induced them to purchase an inaccurate test and caused them corresponding harm, amounting to eight counts of legal violations.

In the complaint, Blumer et. al. requested:

(1) profit disgorgement and restitution, which would recognize Acu-Gen’s unfair business practices and require them to pay Blumer and the women back, thus honoring their money back guarantee;

(2) compensatory damages, to compensate women for any other undue expenses such as the hundreds or thousands of dollars spent on additional medical testing to clarify whether their baby suffered from a chromosomal abnormality;

(3) punitive damages, to penalize the defendant’s wrongdoing and serve as a deterrent to similar companies; and

(4) injunctive relief to prevent Acu-Gen and Wang from further marketing, selling, and profiting from the test.

Acu-Gen maintains their product works, and Wang has referred to the allegations as “totally bogus.”

Although Gainey & McKenna negotiated on behalf of Blumer and arrived at a settlement agreement with Acu-Gen and Wang, according to Barry Gainey, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, both defendants reneged on their settlement agreement. The District Court of Massachusetts denied Blumer’s motion to enforce the settlement, leaving these women and all other similarly situated individuals at square one- susceptible to cutting edge and supposedly infallible technological advancements that leave them aggrieved without effective or timely recourse.

Barry Gainey confirmed that the case is still active and plaintiffs filed a motion to amend the complaint. To clarify this timetable: over three years have passed since filing serious accusations of legal violations, yet there has still not been a hearing on the case’s merits or enforceable settlement. This progression illustrates the inefficiency of the judicial system to address gaps in federal regulation and the potentially grave impact of direct-to-consumer tests.

Like many other direct-to -consumer tests available online, gender prediction tests have been treated as outside the scope of federal regulation. Despite the FDA’s mandate to regulate medical devices used in the diagnosis of disease or other conditions (such as pregnancy), the FDA has thus far declined to regulate the “home-brew” variety to direct-to-consumer tests where a laboratory such as Acu-Gen uses its own reagents and protocols. Thus, the FDA does not regulate the clinical or analytical validity of these tests. The FTC has similarly followed suit in declining to regulate the industry, despite its authority to prohibit false or misleading advertising.

Private remedy through the judicial system is ineffective in addressing the regulatory shortcomings in direct-to-consumer tests. Over three years later, and the women wronged by the Baby Gender Mentor test have yet to receive their day in court. Meanwhile, Acu-Gen continues to market, sell, and profit from a test that at best, is of uncertain validity, and more troubling, may reflect the allegations in the Blumer complaint. How many more aggrieved individuals and how many more years must the public wait until the FDA and the FTC step in?

-Katherine Drabiak-Syed

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Will Stronger Privacy Protections Result in Better Health Data? The Health Privacy Project Recommendations

The Health Privacy Project of the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) recently released a paper arguing for changes in how the HIPAA Privacy Rule protects "de-identified" health information. The recommendations grow from a one-day, CDT workshop held in September 2008. The Health Privacy Project makes the following eight recommendations:

1. Re-examine the Privacy Rule de-identification provisions (in particular, the safe harbor method for de-identification);
2. Strengthen accountability by requiring data use agreements;
3. Expand data anonymization options under the Privacy Rule;
4. Provide incentives to use less than fully identifiable data for certain purposes;
5. Provide support through “Centers of Excellence” in de-identification;
6. Require or encourage the use of limited access datasets and other technical solutions;
7. Require education and training of staff de-identifying data; and
8. Consider increasing public transparency regarding uses of de-identified data.

The Project argues that the HHS needs to re-examine the Privacy Rule "to ensure that the de-identification standard remains robust as re-identification becomes easier."

For readers struggling with the "Babel" of data privacy vocabulary (for example, what's the difference between "anonymous" and "anonymized"?), these recommendations may open the door to additional confusion, especially if #3 (above) means that additional categories of protected data are created. The Privacy Rule currently offers two categories data which are exempt from regulation: "de-identified" (presumed to be beyond the risk of re-identification and therefore not regulated) and not fully identifiable, "limited data sets" (incomplete data which includes some identifiers, for example: birth dates). While the Rule's current categories may seem simple, The Health Privacy Project notes that a "one-size-fits-all de-identification approach" does not, one the one hand, meet the diverse data needs of researchers and health providers, nor does it, on the other hand, provide sufficient protections in era of evolving data technologies.


The Health Privacy Project, Center for Democracy & Technology. Encouraging the use of, and rethinking protections for de-identified (and “anonymized”) health data. Center for Democracy & Technology, June 2009.


Knoppers BM, Saginur M. The Babel of genetic data terminology. Nat Biotechnol. 2005 Aug;23(8):925-7. PubMed PMID: 16082354.

Sharyl J. Nass, Laura A. Levit, and Lawrence O. Gostin, Editors; Committee on Health Research and the Privacy of Health Information: The HIPAA Privacy Rule; Institute of Medicine. Beyond the HIPAA Privacy Rule: Enhancing Privacy, Improving Health Through Research. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Medicine, The National Academies Press, 2009.

Other Stories in the News

Your Genes Aren’t Covered for That: One Year Later, Gaps in Genetic Discrimination Legislation Reveal the Challenges Ahead. Susannah Baruch, Science Progress. June 29, 2009.

FDA’s Current Ability to Regulate Genetic Testing Is Problematic, FDLI-AAAS Colloquium Attendees Say. Food and Drug Law Institute (FDLI) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) [Press Release]. June 22, 2009.

New Comparative Effectiveness Bill Enhances Dx, Genomics Focus. Matt Jones, GenomeWeb. June 18, 2009.

The GINA Law: Consumer Protection in a New Era of Genetic Testing Research Report. N. Lee Rucker, M.S.P.H., AARP Public Policy Institute, May 2009.

-- J.O.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

In the Literature: Predictive Health 2.0

The recent double issue of The American Journal of Bioethics (Vol 9 6&7) includes two target articles (followed by open peer commentaries) on the ethical issues of direct-to-consumer (DTC) genomics and social networking.

The issue opens with an editorial by 23&Me's Andro R. Hsu, Joanna L. Mountain, Anne Wojcicki, and Linda Avey: "A pragmatic consideration of ethical issues relating to personal genomics." The editorial offers five points of discussion that the authors find relevant to the discussion of the ethical issues. Facebook users might be surprised to discover that the service is offered as an example of innovative data sharing policies; see point five: "A single data sharing policy cannot fit the needs of all".

The first "target article" reports the result of an attitudes survey about DTC; see: McGuire AL, Diaz CM, Wang T, Hilsenbeck SG. Social networkers' attitudes toward direct-to-consumer personal genome testing. Although the title suggests that "social networkers" are a focus of the article, in reality they are a convenient (or experimental?) survey population--the authors used Zoomerang and Facebook to reach the 1,080 respondents. Of the respondents, 47% reported a pre-existing knowledge of DTC genomics companies like 23&Me, Navigencs, and deCODEme; 6% reported having used one of these services and 64% reported a willingness to use one of the services in the future.

The second "target article" focuses on where all this might be leading; see: Lee SS, Crawley L. Research 2.0: social networking and direct-to-consumer (DTC) genomics. In addition to proposing that social network analysis could be used to explore the impact of these DTC genomics ventures on research, data sharing, and subject recruitment, the authors also ask: "What are the ethical and social implications of new social formations created through the sharing of personal genomic information?" In other words, how will the convergence of Web 2.0 and personal genomic information (PGI) change our social structures?

Commentaries on these articles include a few authored by friends of the PredictER program; see, for example:

Esposito K, Goodman K. Genethics 2.0: phenotypes, genotypes, and the challenge of databases generated by personal genome testing. pp. 19-21.

Caulfield T. Direct-to-consumer genetics and health policy: a worst-case scenario? pp. 48-50.

Other articles and publications of interest:

Genetic privacy and piracy. Nat Cell Biol. 2009 May;11(5):509. PubMed PMID:19404329.
Avard D, Silverstein T, Sillon G, Joly Y. Researchers' perceptions of the ethical implications of pharmacogenomics research with children. Public Health Genomics. 2009;12(3):191-201. PMID: 19204423.

Bombard Y, Veenstra G, Friedman JM, Creighton S, Currie L, Paulsen JS, Bottorff JL, Hayden MR; Canadian Respond-HD Collaborative Research Group. Perceptions of genetic discrimination among people at risk for Huntington's disease: a cross sectional survey. BMJ. 2009 Jun 9;338:b2175. PMID: 19509425.

Borry P, Howard HC, Sénécal K, Avard D. Health-related direct-to-consumer genetic testing: a review of companies' policies with regard to genetic testing in minors. Fam Cancer. 2009 Jun 2. PMID: 19488835.

Dokholyan RS, Muhlbaier LH, Falletta JM, Jacobs JP, Shahian D, Haan CK, Peterson ED. Regulatory and ethical considerations for linking clinical and administrative databases. Am Heart J. 2009 Jun;157(6):971-82. PMID: 19464406.

Forsberg JS, Hansson MG, Eriksson S. Changing perspectives in biobank research: from individual rights to concerns about public health regarding the return of results. Eur J Hum Genet. 2009 May 27. PMID: 19471310.

Goddard KA, Duquette D, Zlot A, Johnson J, Annis-Emeott A, Lee PW, Bland MP, Edwards KL, Oehlke K, Giles RT, Rafferty A, Cook ML, Khoury MJ. Public awareness and use of direct-to-consumer genetic tests: results from 3 state population-based surveys, 2006. Am J Public Health. 2009 Mar;99(3):442-5. PMID: 19106425.

Henrikson NB, Bowen D, Burke W. Does genomic risk information motivate people to change their behavior? Genome Med. 2009 Apr 2;1(4):37. PMID: 19341508.

Maliapen M. Clinical genomics data use: protecting patients privacy rights. Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology. 2009;3(1):Article 1. Available at:

Manion FJ, Robbins RJ, Weems WA, Crowley RS. Security and privacy requirements for a multi-institutional cancer research data grid: an interview-based study. BMC Med Inform Decis Mak. 2009 Jun 15;9(1):31. PMID: 19527521.

Mascalzoni D, Hicks A, Pramstaller PP. Consenting in population genomics as an open communication process. Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology. 2009;3(1):Article 2. Available at:

Rogowski WH, Grosse SD, Khoury MJ. Challenges of translating genetic tests into clinical and public health practice. Nat Rev Genet. 2009 Jun 9. PMID: 19506575.

Wilkinson RH. The single equality bill: a missed opportunity to legislate on genetic discrimination? Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology. 2009;3(1):Article 3. Available at:

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Gene Patents on the Radio

Do you own your genes? Should you have a stake in the profits from gene-related products based on "your" genes? What about the "tens of thousands of patents" issues by the U.S. Patent and Trade Office for gene-related products? If you're interested, Rebecca Roberts discusses Patenting Genes with Joshua D. Sarnoff, Hans Sauer, and Shobita Parthasarathy on The Kojo Nnamdi Show (WAMU 88.5 FM, June 4, 2009.)

Listen to the full show online or read a summary Donald Zuhn's summary, "Gene Patenting Debate Continues" (Patent Docs, June 9, 2009).

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Genetic Testing and Privacy: Are Our Health Care Policies Adequate?

As a genetics professional who provides genetic testing, I am aware of the fact that many individuals contemplating genetic testing cite insurance and employment concerns as major reasons to forego testing. For that reason, I heaved a sigh of relief on May 21, 2008 when the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA) was signed in to law. First introduced in 1995, at a time when only about 300 genetic tests were currently in use and these for mainly rare diseases, it was called both forward-thinking and premature. Now hailed as the first civil rights law of the new century, GINA will prohibit group and individual health insurers from using a person’s genetic information in determining eligibility or premiums and prohibit employers from using a person’s genetic information in making employment decisions such as hiring, firing, job assignment, or other terms of employment. Guidelines for segregating genetic information from other medical records are expected to be forthcoming.

As I thought more about it, however, I realized that the world has changed rapidly in the 14 years since this bill was first introduced, and that these changes may well undermine the protections that GINA was meant to provide. I see four main threats: 1) more genetic information everywhere, 2) data expansion, 3) genome wide association studies, and 4) electronic medical records.

Under the more information heading, the terms “Genetic information” and “genetic condition” are becoming more difficult to define. We are finding that almost all illness has some genetic component such that making clear distinctions between genetic and non-genetic health information is becoming increasingly meaningless. Under the data expansion category, genetic research has shifted from diseases linked to a single gene (Huntington disease, cystic fibrosis) to more common and complex illnesses characterized by the interactions of multiple genes and environmental factors (asthma, diabetes). There are now over 1500 genetic tests in use and in the not-so-distant future, nearly all health records will include substantial genetic information. Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS) look for single changes in the hundreds of thousands of base pairs (A,T,C,G) that make up the human genome associated with a particular illness or condition. These conditions may be as serious as breast cancer or as frivolous as what type of ear wax you are prone to develop. These tests are being aggressively marketed directly to consumers and can be ordered on line for less than $400. There is little oversight of the companies marketing these tests and as one who works in the field of genetics, it seems almost criminal to test for one mutation associated with cystic fibrosis out of the more than 1000 known CF mutations and call that information useful in the absence of extensive educational efforts. It may not be long before our patients come to our offices with their printouts from 23&Me and ask to add them to their medical record. The fourth threat may be the shift from paper-based medical records to electronic health records (EHR) with their goal of standardization, compatibility, and ease of transport. In a paper-based system, the greatest protection of individual privacy is chaos, the inability to aggregate a complete record from multiple providers over time. Comprehensive and longitudinal medical records will inevitably contain sensitive information and patients will no longer have the option of selective recall in the sense of “is that depressive episode I experienced in graduate school after being mugged really relevant information for the orthopedist performing my knee surgery twenty years later?” Electronic medical records will make it even more difficult to sequester genetic information.

One other developing trend may also play a role, the refinement of personalized medicine, the ability to target drug therapies customized to each person’s genetic makeup to both improve the effectiveness of current treatments and to reduce side effects. Pharmacogenetic testing is becoming standard practice in selecting drugs and dosages for certain cancers while toxicogenetics, the use of GWAS studies to predict how individuals may respond to certain toxins, is becoming more important in assessing both individual and public health risks. If genetic factors appear to play a role in individual and/or community resistance to flu viruses, who knows what might happen.

Technology moves rapidly while our legislature does not. A bill introduced to fix a problem in 1995 may not be as relevant or as useful in 2009. So while I am still happy that GINA was finally passed, the devil, as they say, is in the details, and it remains to be seen how much protection is actually provided for our patients and their families.

Kimberly A. Quaid, Ph.D.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Consent & Conversation in Population-Based Research

PredictER's Peter H. Schwartz will be presenting the Walter C. Randall Lecture in Biomedical Ethics at the annual Experimental Biology meeting of the American Physiological Society, to be held in New Orleans, April 18-22, 2009. Dr. Schwartz's talk, Consent and Conversation in Population-Based Genetic Research, will take place on Tuesday, April 21st at 2:00 p.m. Additional information is available here.

Abstract: The future of research into the human genome depends on the creation of massive biobanks, databases that combine phenotypic information about individuals (such as their medical history) with genetic information and biologic samples collected from them. Some of the most important biobanks will involve the participation of thousands or millions of people, representing a broad swath of an entire community. But signing up such large numbers raises serious challenges for traditional ideas of consent by research subjects. We need to formulate a new model of ethical research that relies on a conversation with a community rather than just informed consent by individuals.

Amy Lewis Gilbert

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Long Term Outcomes of Presymptomatic Testing in Huntington Disease

Huntington disease (HD) is a late onset autosomal dominant neuropsychiatric disorder. Symptoms include a movement disorder, mood disturbances and dementia. The average age of onset is approximately 40 years of age and if one of your parents is affected with the disease, you have a 50% chance of having inherited the genetic mutation that causes HD. Men and woman are equally affected.

In 1993, the genetic mutation that causes Huntington Disease was discovered. This discovery meant that direct genetic testing for the presence or absence of the HD mutation could be offered. Testing is usually offered within a multidisciplinary framework including geneticists, neurologists, psychologists, nurses and social workers and within a testing protocol that involves a neurological examination, pretest counseling, results in person and available follow-up. Estimates indicate that in Europe, less than 20% of individuals at risk for HD takes the test. Estimates for the United States suggest that the uptake of testing is even lower. The lack of a cure for HD, or a treatment that can delay the onset or slow the progression of the disease, is likely a major factor in the low uptake of testing.

Recently, in some HD circles, there have been calls to increase the number of individuals getting tested in order to have a cohort of gene positive individuals ready to participate in future clinical trials. This desire to increase the number of individuals tested is, in my opinion, wrong headed for many reasons, but a recent paper on the long term effects of testing also suggests that caution is in order.

In February of 2009, the European Journal of Human Genetics published a paper examining the long term impact of presymptomatic testing for Huntington disease. The authors interviewed 119 (57 gene carriers and 63 non-carriers) asymptomatic individuals after an average delay of 3.7 years after they received their genetic test result. The main outcomes of interest in the paper were social and psychological adjustment after testing (1).

The results were as follows: The overall scores for social adjustment were similar in carriers and non-carriers and were in the normal range for both groups. Carriers were not more anxious than non-carriers, but current depression was significantly more frequent in the carriers. Prior to testing, there were no differences in the number of carriers and non-carriers who had experienced a depressive episode. After testing, however, the percentage of carriers experiencing depression rose from 42% to 49% while the percentage of non-carriers experiencing depression fell from 45% to 31%. Perhaps even more important is the fact that carriers had significantly higher scores than non-carriers when evaluated with the Beck Hopelessness Scale, considered to be a measure of suicidality. Of note is the fact that while there was one suicide attempt and one hospitalization for major depression after testing in the carrier group, three non-carriers also attempted suicide, one was hospitalized for depression and one hospitalized for a psychotic episode. Despite this evident distress, only 31% of the carriers and 15% of the non-carriers were under psychiatric care and only 36% of the carriers and 15% of the non-carriers were under treatment with antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications. Further investigation indicated that the best predictor for the occurrence of depression after taking the test was the presence of a previous depressive episode. In other words, individuals who have experienced depression prior to testing are more likely to experience depression after testing. Finally, when asked to rate the current impact of the test results on their lives, carriers gave a more negative rating than non-carriers and reported that they had less ability to cope with the test results than non-carriers. Again, it is important to note that more than 25% of the non-carriers reported difficulty coping with the test result.

It is possible to compare these results with a previous study looking at long term outcomes 7-10 years after testing (2). This study of 142 tested individuals and their partners found that carriers and their partners were more distressed immediately after the test. Their outlook appeared to improve somewhat in the 2-3 year post test period but became more negative as the age of onset approached. This study also found that carriers who were lost to follow-up reported more pretest distress than did those carriers who participated in the follow-up study. This finding, which reflects both my own experience and the anecdotal experience of other test center directors, is important because it suggests that most studies examining the impact of testing may tend to underestimate the amount of distress that is being experienced by those who have been tested.

So what do these results tell us? In the 2009 study, almost half of the carriers where experiencing depression after testing. However, almost a third of non-carriers were also experiencing depression. At least two studies have suggested that it might take up to five years for non-carriers to experience a positive change in their quality of life after receiving a favorable test result (3,4). One explanation that has been given is that it takes this long to resolve the emotional state of mourning for the loss of being at risk and the end of doubt about one’s genetic status. Others have hypothesized that that non-carriers may be experiencing 1) survivor guilt for not having the HD gene when others in the family might 2) regret for life decisions made in the past as a function of being at risk, 3) inability to leave behind the at risk mind set, 4) inability to truly believe the test results, and 5) negative reactions on the part of family members (1).

Whatever the explanation, these results indicate that individuals at risk, carriers and non-carriers alike, may be a vulnerable population and that it is particularly important to assess and treat depression before testing and to provide psychological support and psychiatric care after testing. These results also suggest that the decision to be tested should not be made lightly and that the impact of testing may last a long time after results are given.

1. Gargiulo M, Lejeune S, Tanguy ML et al, (2009). Long-term outcome of presymptomatic testing in Huntington disease. European Journal of Human Genetics, 17:165-171.

2. Timman R, Roos R, Maat-Kievet A, and Tibben A. (2004) Adverse effects of predictive testing for Huntington Disease underestimated: Long term effects 7-10 years after the test. Health Psychology 23:189-197.

3. Decruyenaere M, Evers-Kiebooms G, Cloostermans T et al. (2003) Psychological distress in the 5-year period after predictive testing for Huntington disease. European Journal of Human Genetics 11:30-38.

4. Almqvist EW, Brinkman RR, Wiggins S, Hayden MR (2003) Psychological consequences and predictors of adverse events in the first 5 years after predictive testing for Huntington disease. Clinical Genetics 64: 300-309.

Kimberly A. Quaid, PhD

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Will electronic medical records threaten my privacy? No, but…

I’ve been thinking a lot about privacy lately. For example, among the ways President Obama has indicated his commitment to a 21st century health care system, is “by computerizing medical records … saving countless lives and billions of dollars.”

His proposal is already underway in many communities around the country, including Indianapolis, whose Regenstrief Institute is a nationally recognized leader in the development and diffusion of electronic medical records [EMRs]. The conversion of millions of paper records to electronic records, and the organization of hospitals and physician groups to agree on how best to access and share these records, presents a number of logistical and technical challenges. None of these are insurmountable. Moreover, given sufficient resources and political will, it is likely that the President’s vision can be translated into reality sooner rather than later – so long as we can figure out how to handle the elephant in the room (and no, this is not the Republican caucus). The elephant is privacy – the idea that access to personal health information is something that we as individuals should be able to completely control, and that access by others (especially unauthorized third parties) constitutes a serious breach of personal space, let alone any negative repercussions from malicious use. But does the move to EMRs require a dramatic change in the ethics of privacy? Should people be more worried once their records are accessible to more health providers? How can they be sure that errors will be quickly corrected?

I thought I had completely settled views on these questions: namely that the risks from privacy invasion are potentially serious and people are entitled to be frightened. In the case of my personal health information, I have confidence that those experts working on the architecture for the system – the checks and balances, the encryption techniques, gateways, passwords, algorithms and who knows what else – will construct it with exactly those worries in mind. Interestingly, I’m more upset right now that in the past few days someone with plenty of time on their hands has figured out a way to upload a picture of me from the internet and create a brand new Facebook page using my name. This is creepy and it’s wrong. Should I be more worried about a breach in my electronic medical record that accidentally discloses to the world that Eric Meslin suffers from migraines (true by the way), or the Facebook hacker who convinces unsuspecting people to become “friends of Eric Meslin” in order to expose them to “wall-to-wall” postings that attribute opinions about privacy to me which aren’t my own?

--Eric M. Meslin

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

New Technologies and Old Laws: Square Pegs in Round Holes

I sit in a lot of meetings where I people discuss how new health information and technology will fit into existing policy and law. Many of these discussions go over my head, as they are bogged down in minutiae of law and policy far beyond my ken. I have often assumed that these discussions are important, perhaps even necessary, as our system of law is built on precedent, reaching back into the past to inform the future.

And then I read something like this.

New President Barack Obama will have to give up his Blackberry. The entire White House Staff can’t Instant Message. Eight years ago, President Bush sent a message to 42 friends and relatives right before assuming office explaining that he had to give up email. I know what I will say to them if they ever try to come for my iPhone; it’s not fit for print and involves my cold, dead fingers.

Why? It has to do with something called the Presidential Records Act. It turns out that all of the documents that come into contact with a President and Presidency need to be preserved and one day made public. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the importance of such a law, and I am all in favor of it. But even that law recognized that there had to be exceptions. Presidents, and their staff, do need to keep some things private. Conversations aren’t all recorded; neither are telephone calls.

Personally, I hate to talk on the phone. So, given the chance, I will use email, text messaging, or even Instant Messaging to talk to friends and colleagues. For me, and many others, it’s faster, it’s easier, and it’s preferable. I can tell you that I would be much less productive professionally, and much less happy personally, if you told me I had to stop.

Here’s the problem. The Presidential Records Act was written in 1978. No Blackberries. No Instant Messaging. No email. It is simply ridiculous that President Obama can’t have a Blackberry and David Axelrod can’t Instant Message because of a law written thirty years ago. We shouldn’t have to figure out how to make these new technologies fit into law that couldn’t predict them. We need new law.

Which brings us back to health technology. Those old laws and old policies – they too were often written in a time when the issues and difficulties we face today were simply incomprehensible.

It may be just as unreasonable to think that we can use them to inform what we should do today. Sometimes, precedent isn’t enough.

We shouldn’t have to figure out how to make these new technologies fit into policies that couldn’t predict them. We need new policies.

Aaron E. Carroll

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ethics and Health Information Technology: Kenneth W. Goodman, PhD

Join us on January 29th from 12 - 1 PM for Kenneth W. Goodman's discussion: "Ethics and Health Information Technology: New Challenges in Clinical Care and Research in a Pharmacogenomic World" [Flyer, 71 KB - PDF ]

In addition to being a widely recognized expert on the ethical issues of information technology, Goodman is co-director of the University of Miami’s Ethics Programs and founder and director of its Bioethics Program and Pan American Bioethics Initiative. The Ethics Programs have recently been designated a World Health Organization Collaborating Center in Ethics and Global Health Policy, one of four such centers in the world and the only one in the United States.

Goodman notes, in an abstract for this presentation, that the intersection of ethics, computing, and medicine is transformative. He expects "this transformation will continue and acquire greater urgency in a post-genomic, evidence-based world, as digitized genetic data introduces new challenges for clinicians, researchers and policy makers."

This is truly a timely topic; so, join us in Room 1110 of the HITS Building, 410 W. 10th Street, Indianapolis, Indiana. - J.O.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Personalized Medicine: PredictER Collaborator Featured in NY Times

David A Flockhart, MD, PhD, Division Chief of the IU Department of Medicine’s Division of Clinical Pharmacology and PredictER Collaborator, was featured in a December 29th New York Times article that is part of a compelling series examining steps taken toward medicine based on evidence. The article, Patient’s DNA May Be Signal to Tailor Medicine, provides a highly readable overview of personalized medicine, illustrates the field’s inherent potential to increase positive outcomes and decrease costs, and then discusses some of the conundrums that genetically-tailored medicine presents. The author, Andrew Pollack, uses the outcomes of Flockhart’s extensive tamoxifen research to aptly illustrate the medical promise of genetic testing and its broader implications. Flockhart’s research demonstrates that a particular enzyme, CYP2D6, is responsible for converting tamoxifen into a different substance, called endoxifen, which is then directly responsible for fighting breast cancer. The CYP2D6 gene, however, varies between people such that the mechanism is inactive in about 7% of the population, and only moderately active in 20-40%. As the article points out, most patients are now treated with a more expensive class of drugs that demonstrated greater efficacy in clinical trials conducted before the role of CYP2D6 was fully understood. For those women with active CYP2D6, however, tamoxifen may well be the better alternative for the patient, both medically and economically. Genetic testing to determine gene activity in this scenario may therefore have vast economic implications for the pharmaceutical industry.

Amy Lewis Gilbert