Friday, October 29, 2010

Nuffield Council Reviews DTC Genetic Testing

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics recently released the results of a two year study: Medical profiling and online medicine: the ethics of 'personalised healthcare' in a consumer age (2010). The report devotes chapters to six "case studies" (these are not formal case studies, but rather topics for investigation), all are relevant to the ethical development and delivery of predictive medicine. The six case studies address: online health information, online personal health records, online purchasing of pharmaceuticals, telemedicine, personal genetic profiling for disease susceptibility, and direct-to-consumer body imaging.

However, the chapter on direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing, 9. Personal genetic profiling for disease susceptibility, will be of particular interest to readers in the States. Three of the big names in DTC genomics are U.S. companies (Navigenics, 23andMe, and Pathway Genomics) and, given the price tag for services, much of the consumers are in the States as well. In general, the Council cautions that DTC genetic testing lacks a sufficient evidence base for reliable clinical use and that consumers should think carefully about the risks. Nevertheless, the workgroup does not oppose the market for DTC genetic testing, but rather advices companies to provide greater transparency regarding the evidence and the potential harms. On the regulatory front, the report proposes prohibiting the market for tests with no proven clinical utility. See 9.45:

We recommend that responsible authorities pay more attention to whether genetic test providers are making clinical claims for their products, even if implied rather than explicit (such as in their ‘customers’ testimonials’). If so, they should ask for evidence to be supplied. We direct this recommendation to authorities responsible for pre-market review and advertising standards, including the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK.

The council also calls for government (UK) websites to publish the risks and limitations of DTC genetics, for restricting pediatric DTC genetic services, and for programs to educate healthcare providers who may need to discuss DTC genetic test results with patients.

In addition to the six "case studies" the report also provides a chapter devoted to ethical values the workgroup identified as well as the process of ethical reasoning it employed. The workgroup the following ethical values to consider:

1. The value of safeguarding private information;
2. The value of individuals being able to pursue their own interests in their own way;
3. The value of efforts by the state to reduce harm;
4. The value of using public resources efficiently and fairly;
5. Sharing risks, protecting the vulnerable: the value of social solidarity.

These values, of course, are often in conflict with each other. Thus, the workgroup employed a practical approach (not to resolve) but to "soften" conflicts, see 3.18:

[T]he approach we follow in this report is not so much to attempt to solve the dilemmas but to propose forms of oversight and voluntary conduct so that society can manage its way around them and reduce the conflict while gaining general assent. This approach means trying to accommodate as many as possible of the different values we have identified without giving one absolute priority over another.

I think this is a pragmatic approach, but (perhaps) too obvious to bear replicating. It might have been more interesting to learn how the workgroup identified the five ethical values it employed.

In addition to its well-considered case studies, and explained ethics practice, the report serves as a valuable review (with an emphasis on the issues in the UK) of the literature on the ethics of personalized and genomic medicine. It can be downloaded at no cost from the Council's website:

Other Predictive Health Ethics News

Tara Parker-Pope. Taking genetic history to the grave. Well (NYT Blog). October 28, 2010.
Rita Rubin. Most doctors are behind the learning curve on genetic tests. USA Today. October 25, 2010.
Laurie Udesky. The ethics of direct-to-consumer genetic testing. The Lancet. October 23, 2010.
Jessica Reaves. Stem Cell Research Skirts Hurdles, but Raises Ethics Issues, Too. The New York Times. October 22, 2010.
Philippa Brice. Loss of UK genetics public bodies confirmed. PHG Foundation News. October 15, 2010.
Experts warn about genetic tests. Reuters. October 12, 2010.
Matt Ridley. The Failed Promise of Genomics. The Wall Street Journal. October 9, 2010.
Amy Harmon. Stem Cells in Court, Scientists Fear for Careers. The New York Times. October 6, 2010.
Josephine Johnston. America’s Stem Cell Mess. The Scientist. October 1, 2010.
Dan Vorhaus. HHS Pulls the Plug on Genetics Advisory Committee. Genomics Law Report. September 23, 2010.

-- J.O.

No comments: