Thursday, December 18, 2008

Predictive Health, Insurance & Security: A Spiritual Perspective

Over the last few days, I have heard two discussions – one on the radio and the other at the Indiana University Center for Bioethics – that have given me a new and deeper understanding of the meaning of health insurance and of the challenges of incorporating Predictive Health information into healthcare. These two presentations came together to give me a new understanding of the spiritual dimension of health insurance.

The first discussion occurred on the NPR program "Speaking of Faith," hosted by Krista Tippett. This week the program featured an interview with Parker Palmer, a Quaker writer and educator, and focused on themes related to the current economic meltdown. When discussion turned to the role of greed in causing the crisis, Palmer commented that greed stems at least partly from a sense of isolation and a lack of feeling of being part of a community. If a person feels that he cannot rely on others for help at times of need, he will understandably develop the impulse to acquire as much as possible, to attempt to amass a sort of fortress against possible danger to him and his family.

This immediately reminded me of the state of healthcare and health insurance in this country. As premiums rise and increasing numbers of businesses cut back on health insurance for employees and retirees, more and more Americans are living without health insurance or facing the very real possibility of this. And what could cause a greater feeling of isolation – of living without support from others – than finding yourself without available or affordable health insurance? Even those of us who do have health insurance must feel insecure as we observe the growing ranks of uninsured and underinsured people. The historic economic downturn has made the trend only worse, of course.

Palmer’s comment highlights one of the many destructive effects of fearfulness. And it highlights the importance of making health insurance available and affordable. In short, universal health insurance, in my view, would play a significant role in helping to combat the feeling of isolation and helplessness that many feel in the current situation.

And here’s where Predictive Health information comes into the picture. Predictive Health Research (PHR) promises to provide new ways to identify individuals’ specific level of health risk and provide new, more targeted medical care. A healthcare system that provided excellent preventive care, guided by breakthroughs in PHR, could greatly reduce mortality and morbidity. We could improve the sense of safety and trust that supports a healthy spiritual life. But here’s where the fly lands in the ointment. At our biweekly meeting of the PredictER program this week at the IU Center for Bioethics, Eleanor Kinney JD, MPH, and Jennifer Girod JD, PhD, RN, presented a talk about the ways that Predictive Health information threatens to undermine the current system of health insurance. In short, identifying people’s risk levels creates perverse incentives for patients and for insurance companies. Individuals with lower risk have less reason to join the insurance “pool,” since their premiums disproportionately support care for others, rather than themselves. At the same time, insurance companies have the incentive of excluding those at higher risk, or at least charging them higher premiums. As Kinney and Girod pointed out, there are various schemes for blocking this destructive dynamic, although things get difficult pretty fast.

But sitting there listening to them, I realized that once again we were talking about the challenge of how to bind us together as a society and take care of everybody – the high risk and the low risk alike. How tragic if the same scientific breakthroughs that could allow for improved preventive care for all were to result in worse care and isolation for those at the highest risk. That would truly be a situation where isolation, not trust and community, would have its day.

Peter Schwartz, MD, PhD

Friday, November 28, 2008

Translational Medicine, Cancer and Biobanks: Predictive Health Ethics Events at IU

On December 1-2, 2008 the Indiana Health Industry Forum will present From Basics to Bench to Bedside: Emerging Trends and New Developments in Cancer Discovery, Diagnosis and Treatment. The purpose of this summit, the third in a series, is to examine the state of life sciences research in Indiana with a diverse range of individuals and institutions interested in cancer research, diagnosis and treatment. Of particular interest to those keen on predictive health is a panel discussion on December 2nd at 1:00 PM entitled “Tailored Therapeutics and Implications for Regulatory Endpoints.” Panelists include Jerome Yates, MD, MPH, National Vice President for Research at the American Cancer Society, Eric Meslin, PhD, Director of the Indiana University Center for Bioethics (IUCB), Lawrence Lesko, PhD, FCP, Director of the Office of Clinical Pharmacology at the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, and Silvana Borges, MD, Medical Officer for the Genomics Group of the same.
On December 4, 2008 the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute and IU Simon Cancer Center are hosting a symposium entitled Biorepositories: Scientific, Technical and Ethical Considerations at the Cancer Research Institute on the Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis campus. IUCB Faculty Investigator Jennifer Girod, JD, PhD, RN, will be giving a talk on “Ethical and Legal Considerations in Biobanking.” Other presentations will address issues specific to the storage of biospecimens, the extraction and processing of RNA and DNA, tissue procurement, the impact of storage conditions on DNA, and the benefits of biorepositories to research.

On December 8- 9, 2008 the Indiana University School of Medicine will be holding an event that addresses the FDA in the 21st Century: Issues and Their Impact on Medical Technology. This event, which will focus on the future role of the FDA in a changing market, is part of the medical school’s Medical Technology Leadership Forum [Flyer - PDF]. IUCB Director Eric Meslin, PhD, will be moderating a morning session on December 9th specific to ethics and conflicts of interest with Ora Pescovitz, MD, President and CEO of Riley Hospital for Children and Elazar Edelman, MD, PhD, Director of the Harvard-MIT Biomedical Engineering Center. – Amy Lewis Gilbert

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Genetic Privacy: T.J. Maxx and the NIH

What do T.J. Maxx, the V.A. and NIH have in common? They have all been involved in handling personal data in such a way that individual privacy and confidentiality may have been violated. In December 2006 the financial information of over 40 million customers of T.J. Maxx and Marshall’s was accessed by a hacker potentially exposing customers to identity theft. Also in 2006, a laptop computer containing personal information including names, addresses, dates of birth and social security numbers for 38,000 veterans went missing. This past August, large amounts of aggregate human DNA data that the National Institute of Health and other groups had made open to researchers around the world was removed from public view due to privacy concerns. The reason behind this removal was a study (doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1000167) released by the Translational Genomics Research Institute and the University of California showing that using an algorithm and a microarray a curious individual could possibly identify whether or not an individual’s DNA was in a genome wide association study (GWAS) database.

Why does this matter? NIH and other groups conducting GWA studies know that one of the core ethical components of their work, and a critical element for convincing people to participate in these studies, is being able to promise that their personal medical and genetic information will not be compromised and will never be used in such a way that might cause them harm. Being able to demonstrate, for example, that a representative of law enforcement armed with a DNA sample from a crime scene could search an existing NIH database for a sample match and be successful, undermines this promise in a way that might give us all pause. Researchers will still have access to the data, but they will now have to apply for access to the data and agree to protect the confidentiality of the data.

As researchers strive to use the information gained by the Human Genome Project for the improvement of health care and the prevention and treatment of disease, more and more of us will be asked to participate in efforts to establish enormous databases of our genotypic (DNA) and phenotypic (medical records) information. I still shop at Marshall’s, but I am not sure I will be giving my DNA anytime soon. --Kimberly A. Quaid

Monday, November 17, 2008

Patient Attitudes Toward Genotyping: Willingness to Donate

The November 2008 issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology included an article addressing an Indiana University study which sought to ascertain the willingness of women to donate DNA specimens. The article, “Patient Attitudes Toward Genotyping in an Urban Women’s Health Clinic” (David M. Haas, Jamie L. Renbarger, Eric M. Meslin, Katherine Drabiak, and David Flockhart), acknowledges the great promise of the emerging fields of genotype association studies and pharmacogenetics, which will theoretically allow for targeted medical interventions, personalized drug therapies and the more efficient allocation of healthcare resources. The study compared women’s willingness to donate DNA specimens via blood and saliva collection, and looked at several other factors to confirm the findings of previous studies regarding which of those factors predicate a willingness to donate. The authors found that more women are willing to donate DNA using saliva than blood, and that higher levels of education (college and beyond) and greater knowledge of genes and DNA increase women’s willingness to donate.

So how do these findings translate into ethical practice? How will they inform the future collection of samples for both medical and research purposes? It seems that researchers and practitioners should bear in mind that less-invasive methods of DNA procurement are preferred, and that education about purpose and use be stressed during the informed consent process. When asked about the translational implications of this study, Dr. Eric Meslin, co-author and Director of the Indiana University Center for Bioethics, said: “the key to success in any biobanking effort lies in the scientific community’s ability to both acquire and maintain the public’s trust. Informed consent may be evidence of the public’s willingness to permit specimens to be used for research, but consent should never be confused with the public’s willingness to trust science to do the right thing.” -Amy Lewis Gilbert

Friday, November 7, 2008

Genetic Testing and Personalized Drugs: PredictER at Spirit and Place

As part of the 2008 Spirit & Place Festival, a panel of experts from the Indiana University Center for Bioethics and the Indiana University School of Medicine will join together to illustrate the complex intersection of ethics, medicine and science. Dr. Eric M. Meslin, director of the Center for Bioethics; Dr. Kimberly A. Quaid, professor of medical and molecular genetics; and Dr. David Flockhart, chief of the division of clinical pharmacology, will present Imagining Our Medical Future: The Ethics of Predictive Genetic Testing and the Search for Personalized Drugs this Sunday, November 9th, 2:00-4:00 p.m. at the Indiana Medical History Museum, 3045 W. Vermont Street, Indianapolis. Free tours of the museum will be available both before and after the panel discussion. More information regarding the Spirit & Place Festival, which is runs now through November 16th, is available at - ALG

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Genetics, Ethics, and Tasmania

If you're in the Indianapolis, Indiana area on November 10th, join us at the IU Center for Bioethics with Mark Stranger, Ph.D., from the University of Tasmania. Our guest will be delivering a talk on Genetics, Ethics and the Law Down Under: A Tasmanian Perspective from 3:00-4:00PM in the HITS Building, Suite 3100 [Flyer - PDF 74 KB]. Dr. Stranger, a sociologist with expertise in risk assessment, social change, biobanking and social research methodologies, is a Senior Research Fellow and Executive Director for the Centre for Law and Genetics at the University of Tasmania. He also manages the Centre’s multidisciplinary and international Biotechnology, Ethics, Law and Society Network.

This event will be convened by the Indiana University Center for Bioethics; IUPUI Consortium for Health Policy, Law and Bioethics; and the IUPUI Office of International Affairs. - ALG

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

PredictER News Brief - Published Today

The most recent edition of PredictER News Brief is now online. PredictER News Brief provides a digest of news and research relevant to the ethical, legal and social implications of predictive health research. Join the PredictER News Brief listserv or view past issues in the archive.

The October 14th edition includes links to stories related to deCODE's new genetic test to screen for breast cancer risks and (as always) a list of recent journal articles on the ethical issues of predictive health and genetic research. Including:

Alpert S. Privacy issues in clinical genomic medicine, or Marcus Welby, M.D., meets the $1000 genome. Camb Q Healthc Ethics. 2008 Fall;17(4):373-84.
[View abstract or record.]

Goodman KW and Cava A. Bioethics, business ethics, and science: bioinformatics and the future of healthcare. Camb Q Healthc Ethics. 2008 Fall;17(4):361-72.
[View abstract or record.]

Hogarth S, et al. The Current Landscape for Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Testing: Legal, Ethical, and Policy Issues. Annu Rev Genomics Hum Genet. 2008 Sep 22;9:161-182.
[View abstract or record.]

Singer E, et al. Trends in U.S. Attitudes Toward Genetic Testing, 1990-2004. Public Opin Q. 2008 September 1, 2008;72(3):446-458.
[View abstract or record.]

Wallace S, et al. Governance mechanisms and population biobanks: building a framework for trust. GenEdit. 2008;6(2):1-11.
[View abstract | PDF]

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What do you mean by "race"? A call for standards and empirical ethics research.

You've probably read an article or two that reports the results of a race-based investigation. Perhaps it was a study of health disparities, a survey of patient attitudes, an examination of a race-based intervention or new medication to be marketed to a specific race-based demographic. If you wanted to do a systematic review of these papers, you might be vexed by the difficulty of finding a common, valid definition of "race". As a socially-constructed category, defining the limits of race and ethnicity is a slippery business and one that has a problematic past in the history of science and medicine. With this in mind, Vural Ozdemir, Janice E. Graham and Beatrice Godard make a call for clarity in "Race as a variable in pharmacogenomics science: from empirical ethics to publication standards" (Pharmacogenet Genomics. 2008 Oct;18(10):837-41. - PubMed CiteULike). The authors argue for the use of empirical ethics research to inform the development of new publication standards to "minimize the drift from descriptive to attributive use of race in publications". In this context, empirical ethics, or "applied social science methodologies … to better understand, for example, the 'lived' experiences of user groups", would identify blind-spots in predictive health research and would help researchers, regulators, policy-makers, and editors "differentiate between an imprecise (yet measurable) predictive biomarker, from a construct such as race".

Given the uproar around BiDiL and other race-based pharmacogenomic ventures, the authors have made a timely, if not over-due, call for publishers and ethics researchers to collaborate in developing standards for the use of the controversial category in published research. - J.O.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Personalized Therapeutics at IU

In August 2008, the Indiana University Department of Medicine’s Division of Clinical Pharmacology began a new series of compelling seminars that may be of great interest to those involved in predictive health research ethics. The Personalized Therapeutics Seminar series commenced on August 5th with a presentation on the FDA’s Sentinel System for Post-market Drug Safety Surveillance given by Barbara Evans, J.D., Ph.D. from the Health Law and Policy Institute at the University of Houston Law Center. Additional speakers this fall, all from the Indiana University School of Medicine, have included Dr. Noah Hahn presenting on the Indiana University Cancer Biomarker Study, Dr. David Haas addressing PREGMED and the search for individualized pharmacotherapy in pregnancy, Dr. Zeruesenay speaking about emerging in vivo phenotyping methods and Dr. Tatiana Foroud addressing the results of whole genome association studies and how they may change our approach to medicine. The next seminar, entitled Personalized Therapeutics in Breast Cancer: A Model for Translating Pharmacogenomics, will be presented Dr. David Flockhart, Chief of the Division of Clinical Pharmacology, on September 9th. All seminars in this series are held on Tuesdays from 12:00pm – 1:00pm, in room W7120 on the 7th floor of the Wishard Myers Building.

For a complete schedule, please see: [link edited 9-18-09]

Amy Lewis Gilbert

Friday, August 8, 2008

Medical Records, Insurance and Prediction: GINA Will Not Keep this Fox Out of the Henhouse

In a recent Washington Post article (4 August 2008), "Prescription Data Used to Access Consumers", Ellen Nakashima writes about the availability of medical records for data mining. Insurance companies have begun to use databases of prescription records to assess the risks of insuring individuals or when deciding to pay for a treatment. For example, a report could show that an "individual has been on the highest does of the cholesterol-reducing drug Zocor for 18 months" and an insurance company could determine that the patient has "a very high, near-intractable cholesterol problem … and could avoid a costly blood test". The article also points out that these records are more honest than many applicants for insurance and could reduce the cost of insurance while facilitating faster decision making. While HIPAA stipulates that patient consent must be acquired before these records can be accessed, "HIPAA does not give the Department of Health and Human Services the ability to directly investigate or hold accountable … pharmacy benefit managers". Nakashima reports that the increasing availability of electronic records will result in a market in which data mining organizations compete to sell the most complete and cheapest sources of patient data to insurers. Joy Pritts, of the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute observes that "Most people don't even know these organizations exist . . . ." Privacy consultant, Bob Gellman notes that "consumers will likely continue to have no real meaningful choices if they want insurance". Richard Dick, a database designer, suggests better privacy tools for consumers which would allow patients to be more specific when consenting to release medical information, "Otherwise … you have the fox in charge of the henhouse".

I want to know what incentives motivate patients to consent to release this information in the first place. I'm guessing that insurance coverage may depend upon consent; if so, is this real "consent"? – J.O.

Friday, August 1, 2008

PredictER Year-End Review

Join us Monday afternoon (August 4th, 3-4pm) at the Center for Bioethics for a year-end review of PredictER's progress. PredictER's director, Eric M. Meslin, will share his assessment of the program's accomplishments and goals for the coming year. This is an excellent opportunity to learn about the services we provide to our constituents with an interest in predictive health research, medicine, and the associated ethical and legal issues. Refreshments will be served.

IU Center for Bioethics, 410 W 10th Street, Suite 3100. Indianapolis, IN 46202 | 317-278-4034

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What's in Steve Jobs's Genome? Genetic Information at the Top

Jacob Goldstein of The Wall Street Journal's Health Blog asks "Do Apple Investors Have Right to Steve Jobs's Health Info?" -- Investing is a gamble and gamblers need good information to make the best bets. Publicly traded companies are required (with varied levels of success) by the SEC to be transparent with their books. So, if you're thinking about investing in a company with a very charismatic CEO, you might want to know about the results of his most recent physical exam. As genomic medicine improves one could imagine a future in which "reasonable" investors demand a genome profile too. Goldstein observes that Jobs is both a "swashbuckling entrepreneur" and a pancreatic cancer survivor. I'm unsure how that information would help an investor and I'm fairly certain the science of reading the genomic tea leaves would not be much help, at least not yet.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

IndyStar - Do you want to know? Direct-to- consumer DNA tests ...

PredictER's Kimberly Quaid and Indiana University Department of Medical and Molecular Genetics' Dr. Gail Vance comment on direct-to-consumer genetic testing in today's issue of The Indianapolis Star. Quaid notes:

"For a lot of genetic conditions, there is not much we can actually do to change them. So, what are people getting out of the tests?" … While legitimate genetic tests exist, such as one to detect the BRAC mutations for breast cancer, Quaid said, she doesn't see the sense in identifying risks for every disease. She also doubts the validity of tests used by some firms. … Traditionally, health-related genetic tests have been available only through health-care providers, who decide whether they are based on family history and symptoms, and who interpret results for patients. Quaid said that method better safeguards consumers.

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Best Predictive Health Ethics Blogs - June 2008

California and Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Testing:

California's decision to send cease-and-desist letters to thirteen direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies (including 23andME, deCODEme, Knome, and Navigenics) ignited a blogging wild-fire of mostly outraged responses. Some of the more widely read expressions of protest were blogged at Wired Science and include Thomas Goetz's much-echoed Attention, California Health Dept.: My DNA Is My Data (17 June 2008). For an alternative reaction see Steve Murphy's posts on the topic at Gene Sherpa, which include: Do you hear that sound Mr Anderson? (15 June 2008), A$$ Kicking (17 June 2008), and R'Uh-R'Oh Shaggy!!! (17 June 2008). Although many of the replies to Murphy's posts offer only more expressions of outrage, Daniel MacArthur at Genetic Future engages Murphy in a thoughtful exchange beginning with California cracks down on genetic testing companies (15 June 2008) and Cat-fight over California (18 June 2008). Finally, for a good overview of the news and blogging on the subject, see Blaine Bettinger's recent post The Genetic Mess in California - A Round-Up, and My Thoughts (30 June 2008) at The Genetic Genealogist.

Employee Wellness

Matt Mealiffe of DNA and You writes in response to the news that Japan will require companies and local governments to "measure the waistlines of Japanese people between the ages of 40 and 74 as part of their annual checkups" with the standard of "33.5 inches for men and 35.4 inches for women" (see Norimitsu Onishi, Japan, Seeking Trim Waists, Measures Millions. The New York Times. 13 June 2008). In Mealiffe's assessment (14 June 2008), mandatory waistline measurement is "bold social policy" which may be, however, genetic discrimination.

In an unrelated post on a similar topic, Jane Sarasohn-Kahn of Health Populi reports employee attitudes regarding the privacy risks of employers' wellness programs. Writing in Is worker wellness a privacy issue? (5 June 2008), Sarasohn-Kahn summarizes the findings of a recent report: "Employees are concerned that this information could be used to reduce benefits or for even more egregious purposes". An overview of the findings, "Health and Wellness: the shift from managing illness to promoting health" is available from the Center for Studying Health System Change [PDF].

Law & Policy

Andrew W. Torrance of BioLaw: Law and the Life Sciences reflects on the sometimes presumed amoral status of patent law in U.S. – a status that is not presumed in Europe. In Patently Immoral Genes (2 June 2008), Torrance shares the recent, related work of the European Society of Human Genetics ("ESHG") which "has issued recommendations that would severely limit patents on genes in the European Patent Office (EPO) and member states of the EPC." According to Torrance, "the ESHG recommends that the EPO establish an 'ethics committee' to police the patentability of controversial technological innovations". He believes that this news may be of interest to policy makers in the States, including: California Democrat, Xavier Becerra, a sponsor of the "Genomic Research and Accessibility Act" (H.R.-977 – Thomas |

Nick Agar writes at What Sorts of People on a report by The Bioethics Council of New Zealand on the completion of its program Who gets born? Pre-birth testing. The report responds to the New Zealand government's decision to fund pre-implantation genetic diagnosis for couples with a high risk of conceiving a child with a genetic disorder. In NZ bioethics council (27 June 2008), Agar notes that "the emphasis is very much on facilitating parental choice, with health professionals given the role of supplying parents with the information they need to make choices consistent with their values". He observes that the Council made a deliberate effort to solicit participation from a wide range of "interested parties", but cautions that there may be "a bit of fallacy of bureaucratic representativeness here – if a committee’s composition approximately matches the representation of various communities in the general population then its pronouncements must be representative of the viewpoints of those different communities".

Personalized Medicine

Reflecting, in part, on the prevalence of "Personalize Medicine" in the recent 2008 BIO Convention, Jennifer Miller at Bioethics International defines the topic and introduces some of the ethical and legal issues. She identifies six ethical issues in Personalized medicine: an introduction, its promises and the ethics (26 June 2008):

(1) just access to, allocation and application of the new technologies, (2) privacy concerns, (3) respecting parties’ autonomy, (4) obtaining quality informed consents, (5) intellectual property rights, particularly in connection with bio-banking, (6) overall resource allocation and prioritization questions ….


Bonnie Green, writing for BioethicsBytes (17 June 2008), reviews "An Adventure into Ourselves", the third episode of a four-part television series entitled DNA: The Human Race (Channel 4, 2003). [BioethicsBytes hosts and reviews resources for ethics education. The project aims "to assist in the teaching of bioethics, with particular emphasis on multimedia materials (film, TV, streamed media) as case studies".] Green's thorough review of "An Adventure into Ourselves" marks interesting quotations and highlights the social and political context of the Human Genome Project (HGP). She observes that the series and the episode form "an excellent basis for teaching both the science and bioethics of the HGP and large scale sociotechnical projects". The post also includes YouTube footage from related programming about the X-Prize.

Writing for Gene Expression, "Herrick" reviews Heredity and Hope: The Case for Genetic Screening, by Ruth Schwartz Cowan (Harvard University Press: 2008. 270 pp. $27.95, £18.95). This blogger points to three aspects of Cowan's book on genetic screening. In Heredity and Hope by Ruth Schwartz Cowan (11 June 2008), "Herrick" observes that Cowan distinguishes contemporary genetic medicine from mid-20th century eugenics by 1) showing that "genetic screening is a bottom-up social phenomenon, not a top-down mandate", 2) highlighting the "pro-natalist" aspects of contemporary genetic screening, and 3) sharing happy-ending stories about the proper use of this technology. In conclusion, "Herrick" observes:

Functionally, Cowan does the same thing for genetic screening that The New Republic did for tough-on-crime policies in the 80's and 90's: Cowan does some liberal hand-wringing while telling the reader that no, you're not becoming a Brownshirt if you agree to an amnio.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The BiDiL Debate: Can "race" serve as a proxy for groups with shared "genetic" characteristics?

Following the debate surrounding the FDA's 2005 approval of BiDiL – a drug to be marketed to treat African-Americans at risk for heart failure – David e. Winickoff and Osagie K. Obasogie propose regulatory policy for future race-specific drug development. Writing in a letter published in Trends in Pharmacological Sciences [Race-specific drugs: regulatory trends and public policy. 2008 Jun;29(6):277-9. Epub 2008 Apr 29 | PMID: 18453000 - CiteULike (excerpt)], the authors argue: "race-specific indications should be rejected unless clinical trials can demonstrate convincingly that the drugs are both better than existing treatments for a specific group and no better than existing treatments for non-specified groups". They conclude that these enhanced regulations might help to reduce health disparities while protecting groups from market exploitation: "Race can be used as a proxy for the group most likely to benefit from a drug as long as the effect is not to deny others valid treatments". In other words, "Pharmaceutical science and biomedicine most certainly should not be colorblind. But they also must not be 'color-struck'".

Unlike one's genetic information, racial identity is a social-construct – so, using race as a proxy for individuals with common genetic characteristics is a messy and controversial process. In this case, would it make sense at all to say: genome-specific "indications should be rejected unless clinical trials can demonstrate convincingly that the drugs are both better than existing treatments for a specific group and no better than existing treatments for non-specified groups"?

Would such a standard be useful or does it merely re-state the obvious? – J.O.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Curating Your Personal Genome?

When a member of the PGP-10 and an investor in 23andMe writes about curating one's online, personal data, a lot of people listen. Unfortunately, Esther Dyson (writing in MIT's Technology Review) does not mention the decision to share medical information or how she plans to curate her own genomic data online. Dyson rightly notes that "current website 'privacy' policies don't suffice. They're full of abstractions, euphemisms, and generalities, such as, 'We may, at any point in time, provide certain Specified Information to selected Marketing Partners ... .'" She appears to favor a complex, itemized consent policy, one that would allow users to opt in or out of sharing specific categories of information (user name, address, credit history, etc.) with a list of potential users (advertisers and other companies).

Imagine a similar consent for medical records sharing. For example, could someone like Esther consent to share her genome with a 23andMe social network, but not with researchers in this network? Or, perhaps, Esther could chose to share some of her genomic information, but not all of it. Then, again, maybe Esther would be willing to share her prescription history with an academic researcher, but not with pharmaceutical companies. The options could go on and on, resulting in an increasing complex array of choices.

Esther Dyson is obviously a very sophisticated information agent, but (as the opportunity to share medical information online increases) will the average user and patient be prepared to make informed decisions about the risks and benefits of participating? - J.O.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

DNA Biobanks: The Five Minutes Between Nashville and Dundee

Here at PredictER we're very interested in the attitudes of healthcare professionals regarding DNA biobanking. In fact, we recently collaborated in a study of attitudes at a local children's hospital. Thus, I was excited to read the results of similar survey research from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. David A. Leiman, Nancy M. Lorenzi and some other bioinformatics folk in Nashville appear to have been working on this topic for a few years now - beginning with focus groups in 2000 and including a recent international, comparative survey. In "US and Scottish Health Professionals' Attitudes toward DNA Biobanking" [J Am Med Inform Assoc. 2008 May-Jun;15(3):357-62. Epub 2008 Feb 28. | PMID: 18308988], the authors compare the attitudes of healthcare professionals in Nashville with the attitudes of those in Dundee, Scotland. While they expected that the difference between a mostly private (U.S.) and a more socialized (U.K.) healthcare system would impact attitudes, they discovered that the attitudes were not that far apart. Presumably, the authors thought that U.S. health professionals would worry that genetic information might be misused by insurance companies in the private healthcare system and, thus, would be less likely to support biobanking. As it turns out the attitudes of the two survey groups were very similar. Of the fifteen questions in common, significant differences in attitude were found on only three questions. The Dundee professionals were slightly less supportive of creating a DNA biobank and (most importantly) were less comfortable with the idea that they might be asked to consent patients for DNA samples.

In the discussion of the results the authors speculate that time constraints in Scotland might be at the root of this slight difference in professionals' attitudes about "consenting" patients into participating in the biobank:

While many U.S. practices are expected to see patients 12-15 minutes, Scottish doctors are expected to perform the same visit in 7-10 minutes. The additional burden of consenting, or even explaining a biobank project, may be an overwhelming challenge to integrate into the existing workflow.

Those "extra" five minutes of time in which to meet a patient's needs in the U.S., therefore, might account for the greater support ("Strongly Agree" versus "Agree") for DNA biobanking. The authors also mention the difficult nature of obtaining consent for this research – without a complicated: "Traditional consent procedures require researchers to contact participants each time a new investigation is undertaken with the same existing information". Let's hope that the validity of the patient's consent isn't sacrificed to better accommodate the busy schedules of the healthcare professionals. - J.O.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

GINA, The Good News: Engaging the Public

This is the third 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). In this post I address a potential positive:

A little discussed portion of GINA may be cause for celebration. Title II, Section 208, Subsection (b) of GINA calls for the establishment of the Genetic Nondiscrimination Study Commission after GINA has been enacted for six years. The purpose of the Commission is to evaluate the status of genetic science, genetic discrimination, public perception, and other factors, and to make recommendations to Congress regarding possible future legislation. Here, it would seem as though Congress has exercised a reasonable amount of foresight. Scientific knowledge is expanding at an amazing rate; faster than society and its laws can react, resulting in public fear and apprehension. Public fears are important and they must be listened to; public fears shouldn't always determine legislative action, but they cannot be brushed aside or ignored. In this case, Congress seemed to understand this dichotomy. They did the research. They listened to experts, and they acted. – Sam Beasley

Thursday, June 5, 2008

ELSI After Francis Collins: What Now?

In an editorial published today, "This time it's personal" (Nature 453, 697 (2008) | doi:10.1038/453697a ), Nature adds to the many comments on Francis Collins's announcement that he will step down from his 15 year position as head of the US National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). Like most comments on Collins's career at NHGRI, the editorial praises the leader for his ambition, political acumen, and emphasis on the ethical implications of genomic research. In addition to leading the Institute to the successful sequencing of the genome in 2003, Collins helped to initiated the International HapMap Project, ENCODE, and the 1,000 Genomes Project. He also lobbied for the passage of GINA (H.R. 493) and was a constant advocate for the inclusion of public outreach and ethics education in genomic research.

Collins's emphasis on the ethical issues and the NHGRI's ELSI program laid the conceptual groundwork that informs much of the work we do here at PredictER. In fact, thanks to the support of The Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, Inc, the Indiana University Center for Bioethics has been answering Collins's call to address the ethical implications of genetic and genomic research by focusing on both research ethics and medical ethics as the science is translated into current and future predictive health care.

The editorial also mentions some of the challenges that the next director of NHGRI will face. These challenges include a shrinking budget and waning political support:

Although Collins says he has no concrete plans … the future of NHGRI is more cloudy than his own. The funding situation of the NIH has been gloomy for years, with flat budgets stifling many potentially worthy projects. And with Collins gone, the NHGRI may become more of a target for politicians who feel it has run its course.

Of course, the challenges also include existing and unanticipated ethical and legal issues. As the Nature editorial notes: "Genomics is now at a point where the science and technology are moving much faster than society's ability to assimilate and make sense of the information".

One challenge that this editorial does not mention directly, but seems, nevertheless, to be implied by the shrinking public budget, is the fact that much predictive health research will be (and currently is) receiving commercial support. This should not be a surprise. If we want genomic research to result in better personalized medicine, we should expect that the life science industry will invest in the research. At the same time, however, there's no better moment than now to accelerate the investigation of the specific ethical issues of doing commercially supported genomic and predictive health research. For example, here are a few questions that jump to my mind:

Must a research biobank disclose to donors in the informed consent policy that research results may result in commercial products?

Must or should these biobanks share the income from tissue or data sales with donors?

Should pharmacogenomic companies and other patent holders be expected to share financial rewards with research participants or even with the communities to which these participants belong? - J.O.

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

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Predictive Health: Best Ethics Blogs - April, 2008

This issue of the "best" predictive health ethics blogs includes entries on education, eugenics, genetic counseling, genetic testing, personal genomes and privacy.


More on the need for science education. Sue Trinidad, Women's Bioethics Blog. 11 April 2008.
How will tomorrow's voters make informed decisions about the predictive health research and medicine. Sue Trinidad looks at the results of a recent evaluation (see: PMID: 18245328) of submissions to the DNA Day essay contest for high school students; the forecast is not good. After reading comments like:

Genetics create a perfect being. Change the genes. Make that child perfect. There's no better solution to an impending health care crisis. … What we can have is a sea of people who all look brilliant, who are all smart and who all have perfect eyes, nose and lips. It's a perfect society, what more could we want?

Trinidad calls for improved K-12 science education:

[T]hese are the responses of students who were willing to participate in an essay contest about genetics. What must be the level of understanding among those who wouldn't bother? Clearly, CLEARLY, we need to do a better job of K-12 science education.


Genetic DisEnhancement -- Does reproductive autonomy extend to choosing a disability? Linda MacDonald Glenn, Women's Bioethics Blog. 13 April 2008.
Following the recent news from the UK that the government will remove references to deafness from the proposed Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, a decision that will permit couples to use preimplantation genetic diagnosis to select a child with congenital deafness, Glenn questions the broader implications of the decision:

My concern about removing the clause banning the creation of disabled children entirely, is why stop at deafness? Aren't the primary purposes of medicine to heal, to cure diseases, restore, and alleviate suffering? … So the question is how far does reproductive autonomy go? Nobody wants to see a fellow human being struggle or suffer, especially in the name of 'reproductive autonomy.'

Whose Normality? D. Joy Riley, 17 April 2008.
After reading that a economically disadvantaged couple in India accepted a child with Craniofacial Duplication as potentially a reincarnated deity, Riley wonders about Western notions of "normal" in the context of prenatal genetic diagnosis. Riley is alarmed by the concept that prenatal screening for Huntington's Disease "could eliminate this entire population!" The author asks:

Who defines ‘normal’? Is normal equal to “without disease or abnormality”? If so, when? Is normal to be born without disease, or to be born with no disease or disorder present at birth, AND no genes for known disorders that will develop later in life, like breast cancer, familial polyposis of the colon, or Huntington’s Disease?

Genetic Counseling

Now this is why we need genetic counselors. SciPhu. 25 April 2008.
After writing (in an earlier post) that reliable predictive testing may render the job the genetic counselor obsolete, the author of SciPhu reads a paper by lead author Kimberly Quaid (a PredictER team member). SciPhu calls the experience "eye-opening". When it comes to "high risk tests", such as a test for Huntington's Disease, SciPhu concludes:

The final take home message must be that not testing for a condition has significant value, especially when treatment options are scarce or non-existent. … Hope is sometimes a life saver. Knowledge on the other hand, can put peoples lives in ruins.

Genetic Testing

Over-regulation. Steve Murphy, Gene Sherpas: Personalized Medicine and You. 8 April 2008.
In this "follow-the-money" assessment of genomic medicine, Murphy points to the disproportionate influence of the business sector: "Genomic Medicine is being driven by business. Why? Because academia has failed to take the bull by the horns. Why? They are comfortable in their own realm. This is a stretch for them." In Murphy's view, while business sees potential money in testing, less emphasis is placed on genetic counseling and other genetic services. In the long run, however, this lop-sided approach may hurt the life sciences industry. Murphy cautions that the direct-to-consumer genetic testing push may be annoying all the wrong people—some of the big names on the beltway: "AMA, ACP, SACGHS, FDA, CMS, GAO, US Senate, Department of HHS, FTC, ACMG, NHGRI..." In other words, "over regulation" may be on the way.

The gap is widening on genetic testing, too. Ricki Lewis, 14 April 2008.
Following a post on the widening gap between public perceptions and the reality of the current state of the art in stem cell science, Ricki Lewis writes on a similar gap in the genetic testing industry. Lewis warns that whole-genome association tests may not be ready for the consumer market:

The truth is, and the direct-to-consumer company websites actually say so in the fine print ... Consumers may not be aware of these limitations, nor realize that “link,” “marker,” and “association,” have precise scientific meanings.

After reciting the disclaimers, Lewis doubts the services provided by 23andMe, Navigenics, and deCODEme are legitimately non-medical and asserts:

It isn’t ethical to market DNA tests based on whole genome population-based studies without randomized, controlled clinical trials, replication, and validation. ... Whether considering stem cells or DNA tests, that’s simply the way that good medical science is done.

The Ethics of Genetic Testing. William Martin, Free and Wandering Thought. 18 April 2008.
After reporting his less than stellar performance on a recent "biopsych test", Martin shares a few free thoughts on the ethics of genetic testing for diseases like Huntington's and Bipolar disorder. Martin worries about where our society will draw the lines for the appropriate use of genetic information. Like many, he anticipates that trouble in the insurance industry and asks:
"What happens when insurance companies find out you are XX% likely to develop a disease?"

With this in mind, Martin applauds Paul Wellstone's drafted "Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act", which, as Martin reports, might have some impact on how insurance companies will (or will not) use genetic information to determine coverage for mental health disorders.

Personal Genomes and the Bioscience Industry

The Personal Genome discussion. Sandra Porter, Discovering Biology in a Digital World. 24 April 2008.
Porter provides a summary of panel discussion at the University of Washington. At the event Bill Gates, Eric Lander, Maynard Olson, Leena Peltonen, and George Church fielded questions from the audience about the personal genomics revolution. Porter summarizes responses to some really interesting questions, including:

Should people be given information about genes that are related to diseases if there's nothing that can be done?
What are options for the personal genome to benefit third world populations?
How will personal genomics affect privacy?
Are we going to make designer babies?

Also see Deepak Singh's thoughts on the discussion at bbgm.

Personal Genomics Takes a Bashing on Physician Oversight, Financial Backing, and Privacy. Hsien-Hsien Lei, Eye on DNA. 21 April 2008.
Lei reviews the "snarky" news coverage of the consumer genomics industry published in Forbes and BusinessWeek. While Forbes reports that New York's State Department of Health has sent threatening letters to some direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies ("jail-time"!), BusinessWeek focuses on Google's role in supporting the industry. Lei concludes: "If anyone ever organizes a biosciences startup school, they need to put regulatory affairs, investment choices, and privacy concerns on the syllabus!"


A new model for genetic privacy: you don't have any. Daniel MacArthur, Genetic Future. 20 April 2008.
After perusing a perspective piece in Nature Reviews Genetics, MacArthur notes that the authors call for a paradigm shift in the approach to research subject privacy, he comments: "Essentially, they argue that 'the reality of the new genetics and genomics urges us to abandon the traditional concept of medical confidentiality …'." In MacArthur's assessment, the authors:

[A]rgue for a strategy of "maximizing data protection while informing people about its limits". In other words, doing your best to limit disclosure of individual health data, while clearly informing participants of the fact that their privacy can't be guaranteed.

Although he sees the value to the science and acknowledges the risk to privacy, MacArthur wonders how these changes might influence the future of human subjects research:

[W]ill such a policy discourage people with a clear family history of genetic disease from participating in large-scale cohort studies (for insurance reasons), thus reducing the power of such studies to detect disease-associated variants? Will it create a generation gap in research participation, with conservative older people shunning studies while the children of the Facebook era - who engage in public disclosure of information with a willfulness that seems shocking to their elders - embrace participation?

Monday, April 28, 2008

Biobanks for Breakfast

On April 25, 2008, a collection of community leaders, top medical researchers, and statewide biotech industry leaders met to discuss the bioethical and legal issues surrounding biobanks in Indiana. Biobanks are a growing resource in biotech research. They contain samples of human biological specimens and are often linked in varying degrees to the personal health and demographic information of the donor. Biobanks range from the very small disease specific collections of tissue to the very large national sponsored banks of several million specimens incorporating several different types of biological material from persons both healthy and with known disease. Ownership and commercial involvement are among the most difficult ethical issues in developing successful biobanks. The Bioethics for Breakfast group considered these issues along with Indiana’s role in future biobanking by asking attendees to think about the following questions:

- Are you willing to donate your DNA to a biobank for medical research?
- Are you comfortable allowing Indiana companies to profit by developing commercial products from your samples and donations?

Guest speakers at the event included:

David Flockhart, M.D., Ph.D. , Chief of the Division of Clinical Pharmacology at the Indiana University School of Medicine – Dr. Flockhart outlined the national and international status of biobanks.

Mervin C. Yoder, Jr., M.D., Richard and Pauline Klingler Professor: Department of Pediatrics, Indiana University School of Medicine – Dr. Yoder discussed the therapeutic use of biobank samples.

Andrew R. Klein, J.D., Paul E. Beam Professor of Law, Indiana University School of Law - Indianapolis – Prof. Klein led the group in discussion of the difficult ethical and legal issues.

The Bioethics for Breakfast series is co-sponsored by the Indiana University Center for Bioethics and the law firm of Sommer Barnard. – Patrick Barrett

Friday, April 25, 2008

Disclosing Risk: Good Communication or "Doctor-Knows-Best"?

A newly published paper from PredictER's Peter H. Schwartz and Eric M. Meslin, examines the challenges of balancing beneficence and the respect for autonomy in preventive and predictive medicine. In "The ethics of information: absolute risk reduction and patient understanding of screening" (J Gen Intern Med. 2008 Apr 18; [Epub ahead of print] | PMID: 18421509) the authors question whether providing absolute probabilities of risk based, for example, on genetic screening for breast cancer, is always in the best interest of the patient's health. While many argue the respect for the patient's autonomy demands that risk is communicated numerically or graphically, Schwartz and Meslin argue that the disclosures should be made "in the light of careful consideration of patient understanding and possible impacts on uptake and well-being".

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Red Herrings and Sexy Science

Anyone feeling a bit overwhelmed by the frequency of news stories reporting new targets for personalized and predictive medicine, will grab some moral support from a recent article in The Washington Post. In "Science Is Leading Us to More Answers, but It's Also Misleading Us" (22 April 2008; HE08) David A. Shaywitz examines the ups and downs of the new biology. In contemporary genetic medical research the paradigm has shifted from investigating "a few favorite genes" to surveying "thousands of initial candidates" and browsing for "important players and pivotal networks". In Shaywitz's view, this has resulted in a lot of noise – sexy science headlines pointing to journals "littered with studies reporting 'disease genes' or 'molecular signatures' that are likely red herrings". This is exasperated by the fact that journals "have little appetite for negative results" and "erroneous results are almost never retracted". To address the hype in genetics, Shaywitz recommends better, more rigorous statistical analysis on the research front and increased caution and scrutiny by information providers and consumers.

One can hardly disagree with a call for better research methods, smarter journalism, and better reading habits, but where does that leave services like PredictER Blog and PredictER News Brief? Here at PredictER we are committed to investigating and addressing the attitudes and concerns of our communities – including: researchers, physicians, legislators and patients. Undoubtedly, some members of these communities will form opinions and pursue projects that leave them fishing for the sexy red herrings of genetic science. Others will develop policies and regulations based on the latest, suspect catch. Knowing this, I'm trying to keep up with the hype. I try to monitor the information, both to identify quality sources, but also to help our investigators assess the impact of the hype. Although the news headlines may not reflect the best science, they do have the potential to influence the public's willingness to participate in and support new medical research. Therefore, we're doing our best to engage the community, even if this means beginning the discussion with the latest hot topics and sexy headlines.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Navigenics Enters Personal Genomics Game ... Meanwhile: "What's a SNP?"

On April 8th, Navigenics announced it will provide genomic testing services to the general public, yet, creating additional competition among other genetic health startup companies such as deCODEme and 23andMe. These businesses are drawing attention by allowing ordinary people to see their genetic makeup and by providing services to help understand their risk for common conditions.

For an initial fee of $2500, Navigenics’ personalized medicine package includes genotyping for 18 listed medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, glaucoma, colon cancer, lupus, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and Crohn’s disease. Saliva, instead of blood, is collected for the genome scan as a less invasive and less hazardous approach. Within three weeks, Navigenics promises to deliver your risk assessment report electronically and provides genetic counseling over the telephone to educate customers on their genetic predispositions and to encourage them to take preventive measures.

The personal genomics industry is growing and potential consumers have choices. For example, 23andMe lets customers see their entire genetic profile of more than 500,000 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) while Navigenics limits customers to 18 selected conditions, even though it uses a 1 million SNP chip. On the other hand, Navigenics promises the customer access to future technology for an annual fee of $250. Customers’ spit samples are frozen, stored, and re-tested as new associations with SNPs are found.

Hoping to set industry standards, Navigenics proposed 10 criteria for performance, quality, and service for personal genomic services:

1. Validity
2. Accuracy and quality
3. Clinical relevance
4. Actionability
5. Access to genetic counseling
6. Security and Privacy
7. Ownership of genetic information
8. Physician education and engagement
9. Transparency
10. Measurement

With the evolution of personalized medicine and genetic profiling, consumers have more information in their hands. New research initiatives are on the move to understand how consumers act upon this information (i.e. ignore health risks or needlessly worry about slight risks). Navigenics has plans to support future health outcome studies and has recently joined forces with the Mayo Clinic to measure the impact genetic information has on behaviors.

It will be interesting to see whether The Personalized Medicine Coalition adopts or modifies Navigenics standards. Also interesting will be the response from the medical community to risk assessment reports generated by personal genomic businesses such as Navigenics, 23andMe, and deCODEme.

What could be better than knowing your own DNA? This genomic revolution sounds almost too good to be true. Dr. Eric Topol, cardiologist at the Scripps Clinic (ironically a collaborator with Navigenics), listed his comments (December 2007) in an editorial for The Wall Street Journal. Topol presumes it is too soon to tell whether having your genome scanned can be good for your health because there are so many unidentified genes associated with disease risk. He also wonders, as do I, how personal genomics will impact the medical community. His example . . . "When a consumer arrives in his or her doctor’s office to get help in interpreting the genomic data, the doctor is likely to respond: What’s a SNP?" – Katie Carr

[Katie Carr is a graduate student in public health at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI). In addition to taking classes in bioethics at the IU Center for Bioethics, Katie is working with us to develop an ethical plan for pandemic influenza response.]

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Purdue Bioethics: Ethical Issues in Constructing and Using Biobanks

PredictER's Eric M. Meslin, PhD, Director, IU Center for Bioethics, will address the Purdue Bioethics lecture series this Wednesday, April 16th, from 6 to 7 pm. Meslin will provide an overview of the ethical issues in developing and using biobanks for genetic research. The Purdue lecture series (now in its second year) intends "to build opportunities for engagement between philosophy, policy, and science at a campus-wide level and to raise awareness of the ethical implications of biotechnological development for our environment both local and global". The current year's series focuses "on two central themes in bioethics: the ethical issues of climate change and those of issues in medical technologies". Read more about Meslin's lecture or to learn more about the series contact Jonathan Beever or Nicolae Morar at Purdue Bioethcs. Also see the international blog, BlogEthics Purdue.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Gene Sherpas for CME

Steve Murphy at Gene Sherpas: Personalized Medicine and You has often asserted that physicians will need continuing medical education to understand the latest advances in genetic research and to interpret clinical genetic information. In a recent post, however, he provides a few hints about what he will be doing to make these educational opportunities a reality. Murphy writes:

There is a new hope. An institution being set up by myself and others. We are currently looking for donors and we endeavor to set up educational events and group sessions. We will work with Corporate Genomics, Academic Genetics, Corporate Labs, Academic Medicine to develop training workshops. Interested?

Well Steve, I'm interested (obviously), PredictER has been working on continuing medical education programs for physicians with patients participating in genetic research. We have made plans to offer two initial programs in local clinics here in Indianapolis this summer—we hope to stream these programs to a wider audience as well. While this is one step removed from the clinical use of consumer genomics (we're really focusing on research ethics in the clinic), I hope that our work on the ethical issues of genetic medicine will be of use to your hoped for institution. At the very least, don't forget the ethicists and community advocates when designing your curriculum. Good luck finding donors and keep us posted! – J.O.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Racing for the Biobank

Here in Indianapolis the city is preparing for one of the biggest annual gathering of runners in the region. On April 19th thousands of runners and walkers will converge on the Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI) campus for the The 2008 Komen Indianapolis Race for the Cure. While there will be plenty of people milling around after the 5k race and walk, many of the participants will also donate DNA and blood to a predictive health research study. The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Tissue Bank at the IU Simon Cancer Center will collect blood samples for the biobank from both women with and without a high risk for breast cancer. In a press release from the Indiana University School of Medicine, Dr. Susan Clare, a co-principal investigator of the tissue bank, notes that:

Collecting blood from women who have not had breast cancer provides an opportunity for these donors to give a unique gift to science …. Even though these donors will not benefit directly from their donation of blood, they are providing an invaluable resource to enable research that will benefit generations to come.

The upbeat tone in this quotation is nurtured by more than a keen eye for good public relations—past tissue bank drives at the race have been a wild success. So, is this a good way to build a predictive health biobank? Would similar outreach methods work for other diseases? How about a 5k race to cure for diabetes or schizophrenia? Would runners turn out in equal numbers? Would participants be as willing to donate after the race? Undoubtedly the organizers of this tissue bank and the Komen Race for the Cure have done an excellent job of advocating for this research, but is there something about breast cancer or about our culture that might (perhaps disproportionately) encourage potential research participants to join the cause?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Weighing Hope: Living at Risk for Huntington Disease

If you had a parent with Huntington Disease, you would have a 50:50 chance of also having the disease. That's a very high risk - flip a coin - for a disease that has no cure. To make matters worse, the risk itself could strain relationships, lead to social stigmatization and even discrimination. So, if you were at risk for the disease, but had thus far declined a diagnostic, genetic test, would you tell your co-workers, friends and family members about your risks?

Before assuming that you would share news of this risk with all the important people in your life, you might want to read a recent publication by lead author Kimberly A. Quaid, a PredictER team member. In "Living at risk: concealing risk and preserving hope in Huntington Disease" (Quaid KA, Sims SL, Swenson MM, et al. J Genet Couns. 2008 Feb;17(1):117-28. Epub 2007 Oct 18. PMID: 17943424), Quaid et al report the results of open-ended, qualitative interviews of 55 individuals at risk for the disease. Although research on the psycho-social impact of living with the knowledge of genetic risk for Huntington Disease often focuses on the decision of whether or not to be tested and/or whether or not to share the test result, this paper is unique in that it examines: 1) the decisions of those who have not received a genetic test and 2) the ongoing, daily decisions to both disclose and conceal this risk information. After reviewing the unstructured interviews, the authors conclude that some people chose to conceal their risks for many valid reasons, including: to protect themselves from discrimination, to identify the best circumstances in which to share the information with loved ones (especially young children) and to preserve personal hope that they will not succumb to the disease. Quaid et al also remind us that: "Choosing to be tested is, in a way, a decision to disclose one's real risk to oneself. Participants' choosing not to be tested is not denial but a positive way to preserve both hope and their identities as people with a future". The authors encourage clinicians to respect a patient's desire not to be tested. For some patients a genetic test for an incurable disease will not provide helpful information; in fact, for some, the "knowledge … of HD may serve to destroy hope".