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

1 comment:

Steve Murphy MD said...

The field is about to get smaller. At least I think that funding of a lot of these companies may dry up if there act isn't put together....