Thursday, August 19, 2010

California Department of Public Health Orders Changes to Berkeley's Genetic Test Program

Last week Berkeley altered its Bring Your Genes to Cal Program to stop the genetic test results from being disseminated back to participating students in response to an order from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). Berkeley will still hold discussions and lectures based on the aggregate information as previously planned. [See our posting on the Bring Your Genes to Cal Program here.]

On August 11, Berkeley and CDPH met to discuss the program’s compliance with the California Business and Professions Code which requires that a physician order clinical laboratory tests. In a statement to CDPH, Berkeley asserted its program should fall under an exemption for labs performing tests as research where the results are not reported to patients as part of a medical or health assessment. Berkeley maintained that these statutory requirements were not applicable to its program because Bring Your Genes to Cal constituted an “educational experiment,” students are not “patients,” and the three specific gene variants tested are not disease related.

Despite these claims, the program would have returned genetic test results back to each student, which should be defined as part of a health assessment because the program directed students to use these results to inform their dietary and nutritional choices as well as make personal health decisions. According to Dean Schissel’s message to students in the informed consent video, these genetic test results would then allow them to take measures to improve their health such as eating more or less of a particular food, or avoiding alcohol if their test results showed an ethanol “allergy.” Schlissel’s assertion stretched the meaning of California’s exemption in denying that this “experiment” constitutes clinical laboratory tests or that this information is medically significant. Arguments over statuory construction closely parallel the current federal regulatory loopholes relating to DTC genetic tests.

As genomeweb observed, the semantic debate between Berkeley and CDPH is strikingly similar to the volleys between CDPH and DTC genetic test companies that occurred back in 2008. In June of 2008, CDPH had responded to consumer complaints and sent out thirteen cease and desist letters to DTC genetic testing companies, asserting that their policies did not comply with licensure requirements set forth in California law. Two of the targeted companies, 23andMe and Navigenics, asserted they offer an “informational service” providing personal genetic information and not “medical testing services,” so they did not need to obtain a license. CDPH agreed and granted licenses to Navigenics and 23andMe in August 2008.

Now, with Congress and the FDA scrutinizing the federal regulatory requirements, CDPH seems to be responding to the current political shift of opinion and the uncertainties related to providing genetic test results without a physician intermediary and oversight of the test's accuracy and validity. Or perhaps CDPH agreed with concerns in the defeated California Assembly Bill 70. This bill would have urged state schools within the California State University and University of California system from requesting students’ DNA for the purpose of genetic testing.

Defeated AB 70 also raised specific privacy concerns stemming from a university collecting students’ DNA samples for genetic testing and retaining students’ coded genetic information. Although Berkeley's program will incinerate students’ DNA samples following testing, it plans to keep students’ genetic information for further study. Data attack in GWAS studies exemplifies the principle that our understanding of data security relating to genetic information is uncertain, and we have continually underestimated the potential for security breaches. Dean Schlissel’s unwavering promises of absolute privacy seems naively optimistic given what we know in this area.

It seems this “teaching study” has given Berkeley and its freshmen more than they could have anticipated. In addition to the campus lectures about genetics and personalized medicine, students have already learned the ethical and legal complexities associated with emerging technology- the varied parties who have a say, the definition debates, and the unpredictability of the resolution.

--Katherine Drabiak-Syed