Friday, May 14, 2010

Newborn Blood Spot Banking in Canada

A controversy that began in Minnesota and Texas has spread north of the Canadian border to British Columbia. The BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) is opposing the potential research use, without parental consent, of 800,000 newborn blood spots stored in a facility operated by Iron Mountain of Burnaby, B.C. The BCCLA published a press release on May 12 explaining its opposition and its concerns regarding B.C. Legislative Assembly 2010, Bill 11. The BCCLA describes Bill 11 as: "a grab bag of miscellaneous legislative provisions, including sections 165-167 that give the Minister of Health power to collect, gather, use and share personal information without any notice to or consent from affected individuals."

In addition to opposing Bill 11, the BCCLA's David Eby and an unnamed parent are challenging the privacy practices of the B.C. Newborn Screening Program operated by the B.C. Women's Hospital. The hospital's president, Dr. Jan Christilaw, insists (in The Province), “No researcher is actually going to walk out of there with someone else’s blood.” However, at CBC News, the Screening Program's director confirms "some of the samples have ... been used by medical researchers to establish 'normal values and ranges'" to improve testing methods. Nonetheless, privacy advocates are not satisfied. The Globe and Mail (and others) quoted one worried parent, Rhian Walker:

“This was never, ever explained anywhere to me .... I think this would change a lot of parents’ perception of that test. You’re trying to do what’s best for your baby, so I’m a bit taken aback to learn that now that information is being stored and utilized in a way that I haven’t given consent for.”

Although, Eby wants samples stored without consent to be destroyed, Christilaw confirmed in The Vancouver Sun that "staff are finalizing an opt-out part of the program, so parents will be able to decide up front if they wish to participate in the screening."

While BCCLA's advocacy may or may not slow the progress of Bill 11, will it discourage the uptake of a valuable public health service?


Katherine Drabiak-Syed. Newborn blood spot banking: approaches to consent. PredictER Law and Policy Update. Indiana University Center for Bioethics. March 12, 2010.
Jere Odell. Newborn Blood Spots, Biobanks, and the Law: Research Ethics in the News. Indiana Bioethics. February 2010.
Link: National Newborn Screening and Genetics Resource Center

Other Predictive Health Ethics News

Dan Vorhaus. DNA Spit Kits Off Walgreens’ Shelves? Try Genomics Law Report. May 13, 2010.
Michael Rugnetta. FDA Intervention Shelves Plan for Drugstore Genome Tests. Science Progress. May 13, 2010.
Andrew Pollack. Walgreens Delays Selling Personal Genetic Test Kit. The New York Times. May 12, 2010.
Courtney Hutchison. Over-the-Counter DNA Testing: Wave of the Future or Waste of Money? ABC News. May 11, 2010.
Philippa Brice. US genetic discrimination complaint. PHG Foundation News. May 7, 2010.
Sound Ethics. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Sound Medicine. May 2, 2010.
Bridget M. Kuehn. NIH Launching Genetic Test Registry. JAMA. 2010;303(17):1685.
Keith Doyle. UK Biobank 'close to signing up 500,000 participants'. BBC News. April 24, 2010.
Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Human bodies in medicine and research: consultation. Nuffield Council on Bioethics. April 19, 2010.
Larry Greenemeier. Case Studies Reveal that Patents Can Hinder Genetic Research and Patient Care. Scientific American. April 16, 2010.

- J.O.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Pathway Genomics: the Final Tipping Point for FDA Regulation of DTC Genetic Tests?

On Monday, the New York Times reported that Pathway Genomics, a company selling direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic and ancestry tests partnered with Walgreens, who was poised to begin stocking its shelves across the nation with kits. Two days later, the FDA sent a letter to Pathway Genomics asking the company to either show it has regulatory approval or explain why the test does not fall under the purview of FDA’s regulations. As a result of this controversy, Walgreens announced it will postpone selling the kit until the company resolves the issue with the FDA.

Pathway Genomics, like other DTC genetic tests, offers DNA testing to provide consumers information relating to genetic markers for risk of developing health conditions, carrier status, drug responses, and adverse medication reactions. Its website promises “with Personal DNA Testing, you can take preventative steps to improve your future, and even extend your life.” Despite these assertions, Pathway Genomics maintains its test should not fall under FDA regulation because it is “not intended for use in diagnosis, treatment or for the mitigation or cure of a disease.” This fine (or nonexistent) line of what constitutes a medical test rather than an informational service was the same argument used by Navigenics and 23andme back in 2008 when they responded to cease and desist letters sent by the California Department of Public Health.

Up until this point, the FDA has declined to regulate tests and active ingredients that a company creates itself in its own laboratory (home brew tests.) [See our previous posting on the topic here and our Direct-to-Consumer Law & Policy Update here.] Accordingly, the FDA has not regulated home brews’ claims of clinical validity, analytic validity, or clinical utility. That is, consumers had no assurance whether the test correctly correlated with the presence, absence, or increased risk of a certain disease; whether the test’s positive or negative test result correlated with the gene sequence; or whether the company provided useful information to translate these results to the consumer.

The Genomics Law Report posits that the sudden change in FDA’s response reflects the fact that Pathway Genomics will be the first company to sell its kit in a store location rather than through the internet, which increases its visibility and availability to consumers.

It also magnifies the potential that consumers may misunderstand or be misled by test results. Even if the test itself provides accurate information, the nature of DTC genetic tests presents inherent shortcomings. First, there is no requirement for a physician to determine whether the test is medically indicated prior to ordering. Second, there is no mandatory genetic counseling to explain the significance and limitations of the results.

Like several other companies, Pathway Genomics charges additional fees for a consumer to purchase telephone sessions with a genetic counselor. Unlike other companies, Pathway Genomics states it will provide a free genetic counseling session if the company deems it “medically necessary.” This gracious offer misses the point that genetic counselors should always be part of the genetic testing equation. It also leaves us to wonder, how does Pathway Genomics decide what constitutes a medically necessary reason?

It seems Pathway Genomics’ business decision to partner with the drugstore giant may have finally caught the FDA’s attention. FDA’s investigation into Pathway Genomics’ test into may turn out to be the long awaited tipping point for FDA to revise its stance and begin to regulate DTC genetic tests.

-Katherine Drabiak-Syed