Tuesday, July 27, 2010

DTC Tests Face Scrutiny at FDA, by GAO, and Congress

Last week produced a flurry of activity at the FDA and before Congress relating to regulation of field of DTC genetic tests. Here is a summary:

At the FDA:

The FDA sent out additional letters to fourteen more DTC companies, stating that the companies’ respective tests constitute in vitro diagnostic devices subject to FDA regulation. These letters mirror the original letters sent out in June to 23andMe, Navigenics, deCODE Genetics, Knome and Illumina, which we discussed here and here.

On July 19-20, the FDA convened its Public Meeting on the Oversight of Laboratory Developed Tests to discuss the history and current regulatory status of LDTs and status of DTC genetic tests. The meeting was divided into four sessions to address:

  • patient and clinical considerations;
  • clinical laboratory challenges;
  • concerns, benefits, and risks of DTC testing; and
  • education and outreach so laboratories can comply with regulations and physicians are enabled use the genetic information provided in these tests

GAO Report:

On July 22, the Government Accountability Office released its report Direct-To-Consumer Genetic Tests: Misleading Test Results Are Further Complicated by Deceptive Marketing and Other Questionable Practices and offered it as testimony during the hearing before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Committee on Energy and Commerce in the House of Representatives.

The GAO posed as consumers and sent DNA samples from five people to four selected companies. It also examined a sample if fifteen companies’ advertising and marketing practices.
This report revealed numerous appalling flaws related to selected DTC test’s accuracy, company follow up with consumers, and consumer privacy protections. The report found the following five problems:

(1) each donor’s factual profile received disease risk predictions that varied across all four companies, indicating that identical DNA can yield contradictory results depending solely on the company it was sent to for analysis;

(2) these risk predictions often conflicted with the donors’ factual illnesses and family medical histories;

(3) none of the companies could provide the donors who submitted fictitious African American and Asian profiles with complete test results for their ethnicity but did not explicitly disclose this limitation prior to purchase;

(4) one company provided donors with reports that showed conflicting predictions for the same DNA and profile, but did not explain how to interpret these different results; and

(5) follow-up consultations offered by three of the companies provided only general information and not the expert advice the companies promised to provide.

Varied risk prediction from each company grossly undermines each company’s claim of superiority and accuracy, weakening the reliability of the test results. For example, a male “consumer,” age 48, received three different results about his risk for hypertension. One company claimed he had a below average risk of developing hypertension, a second company stated his risk was average, and a third company noted his risk was above average. Accordingly, if a real consumer would integrate this information to make lifestyles changes as advocate by one of the companies, he may be incentivized toward undesirable health behaviors based on a mistaken belief of lower risk.

A widely circulated YouTube video documented some companies’ dangerous blurring of risk and diagnosis during follow up with company representatives. Here is one example:

Fictitious consumer: “So if I’m high risk, does that mean I’ll definitely get breast cancer?”

Company representative: “You…you’d be in the high risk of, you know, pretty much getting it.”

The GAO classified this exchange as “horrifying” and “disconcerting.” It leads me to wonder how many real consumers received similar devastating and incorrect information when they attempted to follow up their own test results? How many went to their physicians with these results and remained unconvinced when the physicians attempted to reassure them? In the near future, these companies should brace themselves for the legal backlash that is sure to follow from consumers who experienced such troubling exchanges and may vent their anxiety and frustration in the form of legal complaints alleging negligence and emotional damages.

Before Congress

During the hearing on the Hill, Rep. Griffith echoed this cautious sentiment, suggesting when confronted with alarming genetic risk information, consumers are likely to panic first and ask questions later. The Genomics Law Report provides a summary of the hearing here.

Despite GAO’s conclusion that DTC companies provide results that are “ambiguous and misleading,” Rep. Burgess and Rep. Waxman voiced their disfavor of overly intrusive regulation and advocated for a system that would still allow consumers to access their personal genetic information.

However, the GAO report illustrates precisely why the model for these tests will continue to encounter problems without the guidance of a physician as gatekeeper and interpreter. In another exchange recorded on the YouTube video, a company representative tells one “consumer” he can eventually stop taking his prescription medicine for high cholesterol if he purchases and uses the company’s pricey vitamin supplements. Advice connecting risk to behavior and medication changes should require a visit to a healthcare provider, not a phone call to a faceless company representative with uncertain credentials.

Even if a company’s test is accurate and it ceases to disseminate misleading advice about the power of its supplements, consumers still want (and need) additional information and advice from healthcare professionals to interpret and act on the test results they receive.

-Katherine Drabiak-Syed