Will the Recent Workplace Wellness Bill Really Undermine Employee Health Privacy?

By Jessica L. Roberts

While the effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has taken center stage, another health-related bill has been making its way through the House without nearly as much attention. On March 2, 2017, Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC) introduced House Resolution (HR) 1313 on behalf of herself and Representative Tim Walberg (R-MI).   The bill would lift current legal restrictions on access to genetic and other health-related information. Specifically, HR 1313 targets provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that prohibit employers from conducting unnecessary medical examinations and inquiries that do not relate to job performance; the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act’s (GINA) provisions proscribing employers from requesting, requiring or purchasing the genetic information of their employees; and GINA’s prohibition on group health insurance plans acquiring genetic information for underwriting purposes and prior to enrollment. The bill passed through the Committee on Education and the Workforce last Wednesday along strict party lines with 22 Republicans supporting the proposed legislation and 17 Democrats opposing it.

Despite the public outcry against the bill, HR 1313 may not be as far-reaching as it initially appears. First, while advocates of genetic privacy fear the worst, both the ADA and GINA contain exceptions for wellness programs that already allow employers to access at least some employee health data. Second, even if HR 1313 passes, employees would still enjoy the ADA’s and GINA’s antidiscrimination protections.   HR 1313 could well give employers additional access to genetic and other health-related information about their employees but it is not a license to then use that information to discriminate.

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Bold New Policies for The Brave New Biologies: IPRs and Innovation in Synthetic Biology and Gene editing

Research Seminar at the University of Copenhagen debating intellectual property and innovation in synthetic biology, systems biology & gene editing.

New technologies in biology offer a brave new world of possibilities. Promising solutions to some of the most urgent challenges faced by humanity: climate change, environmental protection, growing population, renewable energy and improved health care. Scientific and technological progress has been remarkable. Simultaneously, emerging life science technologies raise outstanding ethical, legal and social questions.

In this research seminar, Prof. Esther Van Zimmeren from the University of Antwerp joins Prof. Timo Minssen, Postdoc Ana Nordberg and Ph.D. Student Jakob Wested from the Centre for Information and Innovation Law, debating bold new policies for intellectual property law and incentive to life science innovation.

Programme

15:00 – 15:10 Welcome
Prof. Timo Minssen, CIIR, Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen.
15:10 – 15:30 Waiting for the Rumble in the Jungle: – An overview of current CRISPR/CAs9 patent disputes, central legal issues and some thoughts on conditioning the innovation system.
PhD Student Jakob Wested, CIIR, Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen.
15:30 – 15:50 From FRAND to FAIR for Synthetic and Systems Biology? The Implications of Openness, IP Strategies, Standardization and the Huawei-case.
Prof. Esther van Zimmeren, Faculty of Law, University of Antwerp.
15:50 – 16:10 Keeping up with the technologies: IP Law and Regulation in the age of gene editing.
Postdoc Ana Nordberg, CIIR, Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen.
16.10 – 17.00 Questions and panel debate

Time: 13 March 2017, 15:00 – 17:00

Venue: Meeting Room 7A-2-04 , Faculty of Law, Njalsgade 76, DK-2300 Copenhagen S

Registration:
The event is free to attend. Registration is mandatory. Please use this registration form no later than Monday, 13 March 2017, 11:00 at the latest.

Organizer: Copenhagen Biotech & Pharma Forum, at CIIR, Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen

Genetic counselors, genetic interpreters, and conflicting interests

By Katie Stoll, Amanda Mackison, Megan Allyse, and Marsha Michie

The booming genetic testing industry has created many new job opportunities for genetic counselors. Within commercial laboratories, genetic counselors work in sales and marketing, variant interpretation, as “medical science liaisons” to clinicians, and providing direct patient care. Although the communication skills and genetics expertise of the genetic counselor prepare them well for these roles, they also raise concerns about conflicts of interest (COI).

Why are genetic counselors leaving clinics and hospitals for industry jobs? Alongside greater job flexibility and taking on new challenges, a big reason is better pay. Hospitals and clinics have difficulty competing with the higher salaries at commercial labs because of continuing challenges in insurance reimbursement. Apart from limited preventive care covered under the Affordable Care Act, genetic counseling is inconsistently covered by private payers. Medicaid reimbursement for genetic counseling is state-dependent, and Medicare does not recognize genetic counselors as reimbursable health care providers at all.

Genetic counselors’ primary objective has historically been to help patients navigate difficult medical genetic information and decisions, supporting their autonomy.  But as laboratory employees, they must also navigate their employer’s financial interests, including increasing the uptake of genetic testing. In this changing landscape, can the profession of genetic counseling maintain the bioethical principles of beneficence, informed consent, and respect for autonomy that have been its foundation and ethos? Continue reading

Bill of Health Blog Symposium: How Patients Are Creating the Future of Medicine

Bill of Health Blog Symposium: How Patients Are Creating the Future of Medicine

We are pleased to host this symposium featuring commentary from participants in the University of Minnesota’s Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences event, “How Patients Are Creating Medicine’s Future: From Citizen Science to Precision Medicine.”  Below, Susan M. Wolf tees up the issues.  All posts in the series will be available here.

How Patients Are Creating the Future of Medicine: Roundtable at University of Minnesota

By Susan M. Wolf, JD (Chair, Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences; McKnight Presidential Professor of Law, Medicine & Public Policy; Faegre Baker Daniels Professor of Law; Professor of Medicine, University of Minnesota)

Citizen science, the use of mobile phones and other wearables in research, patient-created medical inventions, and the major role of participant-patients in the “All of Us” Precision Medicine Initiative are just a few of the indicators that a major shift in biomedical research and innovation is under way. Increasingly, patients, families, and the public are in the driver’s seat, setting research priorities and the terms on which their data and biospecimens can be used. Pioneers such as Sharon Terry at Genetic Alliance and Matthew Might at NGLY1.org have been forging a pathway to genuine partnership linking patients and researchers. But the legal and ethical questions remain daunting. How should this research be overseen? Should the same rules apply as in more conventional, academically driven research? What limits should apply to parental use of unvalidated treatments on children affected by severe, rare disease? And should online patient communities be able to set their own rules for research?

In December 2016, the University of Minnesota’s Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences convened four thinkers with diverse academic and professional backgrounds to analyze these trends. This event, “How Patients Are Creating Medicine’s Future: From Citizen Science to Precision Medicine” was part of the Consortium’s Deinard Memorial Lecture Series on Law & Medicine, co-sponsored by the University’s Center for Bioethics and Joint Degree Program in Law, Science & Technology, with support from the Deinard family and law firm of Stinson Leonard Street. To see a video of the event, visit http://z.umn.edu/patientledvideo.

The four speakers offered diverse and provocative perspectives, each of which is highlighted in this series.

Citizen-Led Bioethics for the Age of Citizen Science: CRexit, BioEXIT, and Popular Bioethics Uprisings

By Barbara J. Evans, MS, PhD, JD, LLM (Alumnae College Professor of Law; Director, Center on Biotechnology & Law, University of Houston)

This post is part of a series on how patients are creating the future of medicine.  The introduction to the series is available here, and all posts in the series are available here.

The citizen science movement goes beyond merely letting people dabble in science projects. It involves giving regular people a voice in how science should be done. And citizen science calls for a new, citizen-led bioethics.

Twentieth-century bioethics was a top-down affair. Ethics experts and regulators set privacy and ethical standards to protect research subjects, who were portrayed as autonomous but too vulnerable and disorganized to protect themselves. The Common Rule’s informed consent right is basically an exit right: people can walk away from research if they dislike the study objectives or are uncomfortable with the privacy protections experts think are good for them. An exit right is not the same thing as having a voice with which to negotiate the purposes, terms, and conditions of research.

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Participant Power

By Jason Bobe, MSc (Associate Professor, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; Executive Director, Open Humans Foundation; Co-founder, DIYbio.org)

This post is part of a series on how patients are creating the future of medicine.  The introduction to the series is available here, and all posts in the series are available here. Jason Bobe will be participating in an NIH videocast on return of genetic results in the All of Us research program starting at 8AM on Monday, March 6, 2017.  You can tune in here

People across the world regularly rank health and health care near the top of what they value. Yet most people don’t volunteer to participate in organized health research. This is the “participation paradox.” We appear to be neglecting the very inquiry that feeds our ability to understand our bodies and to evaluate approaches to preserve, improve, or recover health from disease.

Better advertising and more effective recruitment strategies for research studies may help drive numbers up. But catchy slogans won’t drive a cultural shift toward a new future, where research participation becomes a regular part of life and organized health research is seen as a first step toward solving our health challenges, not merely the last hope for people with devastating illnesses.

Given how long it took patient-centered medicine to catch on, participant-centered research may face a long road ahead. Warner Slack was publishing about “patient power” at least as far back as 1972 (in his chapter on “Patient Power: A Patient-Oriented Value System,” in Computer Diagnosis and Diagnostic Methods, edited by John A. Jacquez, 1978). More than forty years later, great strides have been made, yet “patient power” is still a work in progress.

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The Wearables Revolution: Personal Health Information as the Key to Precision Medicine

By Ernesto Ramirez, PhD (Director of Research & Development, Fitabase)

This post is part of a series on how patients are creating the future of medicine.  The introduction to the series is available here, and all posts in the series are available here.

Personal health data has historically been controlled by the healthcare industry. However, much has changed in the last decade. From wearable devices for tracking physical activity, to services that decode the personal microbiome, there has been an explosion of methods to collect and understand our personal health and health behavior. This explosion has created a new type of data that has the potential to transform our understanding of the deep interactions of health behaviors, exposure, and outcomes — data that is large-scale, longitudinal, real-time, and portable.

New devices, applications, and services are creating large amounts of data by providing methods for collecting information repeatedly over long periods of time. For example, I have tracked over 20 million steps since 2011 using a Fitbit activity tracker. Many of the new tools of personal health data are also connected to the Internet through Bluetooth communication with smartphones and tablets. This connectivity, while commonly used to update databases as devices sync, also provides an opportunity to view data about ourselves in real-time. Lastly, there is an increasing interest in making this data accessible through the use of application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow third parties to access and analyze data as is becomes available. Already we are seeing unique and useful tools being developed to bring consumer personal health data to bear in clinical settings, health research studies, and health improvement tools and services.

The availability of this type of personal health data is having a big impact. The examples provided by the #WeAreNotWaiting and #OpenAPS communities showcase the groundbreaking potential of portable, usable, personal data. It is transforming the quality of life for individuals living with type 1 diabetes. Through access to data from continuous glucose monitors and wireless control of insulin pumps, over 100 individuals have implemented their own version of an artificial pancreas. These pioneering individuals are at the forefront of a revolution using personal health data to take charge of care and customize treatment decisions.

Personal health data will play a major role in the future of precision medicine, healthcare, and health research. Sensors will continue to improve. New data streams will become available. More analytical tools will surface. There will be more support for portable and sharable data. The availability of large-scale, longitudinal, and real-time personal health data will improve not only the ability of individuals to understand their own health, but when pooled, may produce new insights about what works, for what people, under what conditions.

Patient-Driven Medical Innovations: Building a Precision Medicine Supply Chain for All

Kingshuk K. Sinha, PhD (Department Chair and Mosaic Company-Jim Prokopanko Professor of Corporate Responsibility Supply Chain and Operations Department, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota)

This post is part of a series on how patients are creating the future of medicine.  The introduction to the series is available here, and all posts in the series are available here.

While the promise and potential of precision medicine are clear, delivering on that promise and making precision medicine accessible to all patients will require clinical adoption and a reliable and responsible supply chain. We already know this is a big problem in pharmacogenomics technology; the science is advancing rapidly, but clinical adoption is lagging. While Big Data can be a powerful tool for health care – whether it be an individual’s whole genome or an online aggregation of information from many patients with a particular disease – building implementation pathways to analyze and use the data to support clinical decision making is crucial. All of the data in the world doesn’t mean much if we can’t ensure that the development of precision medicine is linked with the efficient, safe, and equitable delivery of precision medicine.

Effective implementation means addressing the stark realities of health disparities. Leveraging citizen science to develop and deliver precision medicine has the potential to reduce those disparities. Citizen science complements more traditional investigator-driven scientific research and engages amateur and non-professional scientists, including patients, patients’ families, and communities across socio-economic strata as well as country boundaries.

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ACA Repeal and the End of Heroic Medicine

Last week, I saw Dr Atul Gawande speak at Health Action 2017. Healthcare advocates and activists sat around scribbling notes and clutching at their choice of whole-food, cold-pressed, green and caffeinated morning lifelines. Gawande speaks softly, lyrically and firmly; the perfect bedside manner for healthcare advocates in these early days of the Trump presidency. He calmly announced to the congregation that the age of heroic medicine is over. Fortunately, he continued, that’s a good thing.

Gawande’s remarks echoed a piece he published in the New Yorker. He writes that for thousands of years, humans fought injury, disease and death much like the ant fights the boot. Cures were a heady mixture of quackery, tradition and hope. Survival was largely determined by luck. Medical “emergencies” did not exist; only medical “catastrophes”. However, during the last century, antibiotics and vaccines routed infection, polio and measles. X-rays, MRIs and sophisticated lab tests gave doctors a new depth of understanding. New surgical methods and practices put doctors in a cage match with Death and increasingly, doctors came out with bloody knuckles and a title belt. Gradually, doctors became heroes and miracles became the expectation and the norm. This changed the way we view healthcare. Gawande writes, “it was like discovering that water could put out fire. We built our health-care system, accordingly, to deploy firefighters.”

But the age of heroic medicine is over. Dramatic, emergency interventions are still an important part of the system. However, Gawande insists that the heavy emphasis on flashy, heroic work is misplaced. Much more important is “incremental medicine” and the role of the overworked and underappreciated primary care physician.

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Looking Forward: The Next Generation of Biosimilars

Looking Forward: The Next Generation of Bio
similars

February 7, 2017 12:00 PM

Description

Many of today’s important medications are biological products made from living organisms, manufactured through biotechnology, derived from natural sources, or produced synthetically. Biosimilars are a type of biological product approved by FDA on the basis of being highly similar to an already approved biological reference product, like a generic drug.

This panel of experts will discuss the current state of biosimilars in the healthcare ecosystem and what comes next from a technical and legal perspective. Topics include how the next generation of biosimilars can improve patient access to standard-of-care therapies, the concept of “biobetters,” economic and intellectual property considerations, and policy approaches to support existing and future biosimilars.

Panelists

This event is free and open to the public. Lunch will be provided.

Sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.

Chimeras with benefits? Transplants from bioengineered human/pig donors

By Brad Segal

In January of this year, Cell published a study modestly titled, Interspecies Chimerism with Mammalian Pluripotent Stem Cells. It reports success bioengineering a mostly-pig partly-human embryo. One day before, Nature published a report that scientists had grown (for lack of a better word) a functioning genetically-mouse pancreas within the body of a genetically-modified rat. The latest study raises the likelihood that before long, it will also be scientifically possible to grow human organs within bioengineered pigs.

The implications for transplantation are tremendous. But hold the applause for now. Imagine a chimera with a brain made up of human neurons which expressed human genes. Would organ procurement without consent be okay? That troubling possibility raises  questions about whether manufacturing chimeras with human-like properties for organs is even appropriate in the first place. Here’s what University of Montreal bioethicist Vardit Ravitsky told the Washington Post:

“I think the point of these papers is sort of a proof of principle, showing that what researchers intend to achieve with human-non-human chimeras might be possible … The more you can show that it stands to produce something that will actually save lives … the more we can demonstrate that the benefit is real, tangible and probable — overall it shifts the scale of risk-benefit assessment, potentially in favor of pursuing research and away from those concerns that are more philosophical and conceptual.”

I respectfully disagree. Saving more lives, of course, is good. Basic science is also valuable – even more so if it might translate to the bedside. This line of research, though, is positioned to upend our entire system of transplantation, and so its implications go beyond organ supply. In this post I will argue that to assess this technology’s implications for organ procurement in particular, there is good reason to focus on harms, not benefits. Continue reading

Looking Forward: The Next Generation of Biosimilars

Looking Forward: The Next Generation of Bio
similars

February 7, 2017 12:00 PM

Description

Many of today’s important medications are biological products made from living organisms, manufactured through biotechnology, derived from natural sources, or produced synthetically. Biosimilars are a type of biological product approved by FDA on the basis of being highly similar to an already approved biological reference product, like a generic drug.

This panel of experts will discuss the current state of biosimilars in the healthcare ecosystem and what comes next from a technical and legal perspective. Topics include how the next generation of biosimilars can improve patient access to standard-of-care therapies, the concept of “biobetters,” economic and intellectual property considerations, and policy approaches to support existing and future biosimilars.

Panelists

This event is free and open to the public. Lunch will be provided.

Sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.

Public Variant Databases: Data Share with Care

By Adrian Thorogood, BCL, LLB

If every individual has millions of unique variants in their DNA, how can clinicians be expected to tease out a handful of disease causing mutations from a haystack of inconsequential variants? To aid their cause, public human genomic variant databases have sprung up to catalog variants that cause (or do not cause) disease. These databases aggregate, curate and share data from research publications and from clinical sequencing laboratories who have identified a  “pathogenic”, “unknown” or “benign” variant when testing a patient.

International sharing of variant data is “crucial” to improving human health. To inform patient diagnosis or treatment, it is essential that data be accurate and up to date. If variants are collaboratively interpreted by laboratories, databases and treating physicians, who is ultimately responsible for the quality of data? If one actor in the chain does a shoddy job of interpreting variants, resulting in harm to patients, who could be liable? This is the question I pose with Professors Bartha Knoppers and Robert Cook-Deegan in a recent article in Genetics and Medicine: “Public Variant Databases: Liability?”. Continue reading

Genomic Testing, Reflective Equilibrium and the Right Not To Know

Almost any test can return incidental results. An incidental result is something demonstrated by the test but not an answer to the test’s original question. Trying on a new pair of trousers, for example, can tell you whether or not they fit. It can also return the incidental result that the holiday feasting hadn’t been as kind to your waistline as you had hoped. Incidental results in genetic testing can be even more alarming. Whether done for clinical or research purposes, genetic tests can reveal a range of mutations, markers and predispositions far beyond the range being tested for. As technology advances, it expands the breadth of possible results.

Incidental results can often impart life changing information. Many can be a cause for dramatic but potentially life saving medical intervention: the presence of BRCA1 and BRCA2 variants that indicate an increased risk of breast cancer, for example.Where incidental results suggest that a patient might have an increased risk of developing a condition in the distant future, that information might allow them to act immediately to mitigate that risk. Genetic testing might also reveal inherited or inheritable mutations that could be crucial information for a patient’s entire family. Even outside the realm of disease, a genetic test might reveal something that could have huge psychological or social ramifications for a patient: for example, a test might reveal true paternity. However, the potentially life altering nature of some of these findings, in contexts where they are not being looked for or even expected, has led to questions about whether they should be revealed to the test subject at all.

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DNA: Donors Not Anonymous

Special Guest Post by Wendy Kramer
[In response to Sperm donor anonymity and compensation: an experiment with American sperm donors, published in the Journal of the Law and Biosciences.]

My son Ryan and I were contacted by Family Tree DNA in 2004, as they thought that their new commercial DNA testing capabilities might be useful to Ryan, and to the others in our community of donor conceived people at the Donor Sibling Registry. At that time we thought it might be possible to find out more about one’s ancestry and countries of origin. Ryan was excited to learn more about his “invisible” paternal ancestry, so quickly agreed to swab his cheek, send in his sample and see what he might learn. He may have been the first donor-conceived person to throw his DNA into a public DNA database, making himself available to connect with previously unknown genetic relatives.

At first, he did learn a bit more about his paternal ancestry, specifically about countries of origin. He learned that he was mostly English, with some Irish and even a bit of Icelandic (which he thought was pretty cool). He also matched with people on his 12 and 25 Y Chromosome DNA markers, which meant that common ancestors related them from hundreds or even thousands of years ago. And for 9 months he was content with that little bit of information. Continue reading

Transparency and Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Testing Companies

By Linnea Laestadius, PhD, MPP

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing companies are now a fixture of U.S. consumer culture, with dozens of companies offering adults on-demand insights into their ancestry and health (sometimes loosely defined). While a compelling argument can be made for giving consumers the right to access information about their own genetic material, DTC-testing presents a range of legal and ethical concerns. Scholars and physicians have long been raising questions about the analytic validity, clinical validity, and clinical utility of these services. The FDA has increasingly worked to address these aspects of DTC-testing and has issued letters to multiple DTC genetic testing firms arguing that they are offering medical devices that should be subject to premarket review. Developments in this area continue to emerge and the FDA recently authorized marketing for 23andMe’s Bloom Syndrome carrier test, while also planning to exempt future carrier screening tests from premarket review.

These are clearly positive developments from the perspective of consumer protection, however, other aspects of DTC genetic testing remain largely unaddressed. Most notably, there are significant concerns about how firms handle consumer samples and data and how and if they use them for secondary purposes. To address this issue, Paul Auer, PhD, Jennifer Rich, MPH, and I set out to understand how transparent these firms are about their privacy, confidentiality, and secondary use policies. Recently published in Genetics in Medicine, this work offers an analysis of the terms-of-service and privacy policies of the top 30 DTC genetic testing firms that show up in a U.S. based web search.

While transparency about data practices varied across firms, a number of gaps appeared with regard to conveying information about the risks of data disclosure, the ultimate fate of samples and data, and use of data for research. Over the past decade, several major professional and governmental organizations have issued guidelines for transparency in these areas, including the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics and the European Society of Human Genetics. At present, it does not appear that non-binding guidelines have been sufficient to encourage widespread compliance with best practices on these topics. Continue reading

A Common Morality?

By Seán Finan

600px-lab_mouse_mg_3244Last week, a patent application in India was refused, apparently on the basis that the invention under review could have been used to counterfeit money. This practice of denying patents on the basis of public policy or morality is almost as old as the practice of granting patents. For example, the State of Monopolies was enacted in England in 1624 to prohibit monopolies where they would be “mischievous to the State”. In many other jurisdictions, patents on food and medicines were prohibited, on the basis that the public good served by these products outweighed any claims of monopoly rights by the inventor. The other approach is preferred in the US. Cases like Diamond v Chakrabarty removed much of the normative question from American patent law and it has been strongly argued that a patent application “is not an ethical event.”

Whether a patent can be refused on the basis of morality is a difficult enough question, but the problem is compounded once the “morality” in question is not confined to a single jurisdiction. The harmonization of patent law across Europe in the last fifty years has forced the European Patent Office (EPO) to consider how to make a moral judgement on behalf of all the contracting states to the European Patent Convention. Its approach has been neither consistent between cases nor consistent with the underlying treaties. I would like to give a quick sketch of the contrast between the European legal framework and its manifestation in the decisions of the EPO.

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Knowledge is Power, or Ignorance is Bliss?

By Kyle B. Brothers

You have a rare illness that seems to have a genetic cause. For years you have moved from geneticist to geneticist looking for the cause of your illness, hoping that by finding the precise genetic cause you will discover ways to alleviate your symptoms. You have had five or six genetic tests, but each one has turned up normal. Finally you visit a young geneticist fresh out of training, hoping that she will know of another test to try. She recommends the most comprehensive genetic test of all: whole genome sequencing (WGS). You are ready to immediately get this test when she poses a difficult question: WGS might reveal a cause for your illness, but it might also reveal that you are at risk for developing breast cancer, or schizophrenia, or Alzheimer’s disease. Which of these “incidental” findings do you also want to receive?

Until recently, this genomic “would you want to know” question has lived exclusively in the world of science fiction. Would you want to know what secrets your genome holds about your future? For example, would you want to know how you will die? If you knew what the future is likely to hold, would you feel fatalistic or empowered to take control of it? These questions have been the topic of compelling movies like GATTACA and classic novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Continue reading

Considering stakeholders in policy around secondary findings in genomics

By Michael Mackley

It took nearly thirteen years and an army of scientists to generate the first sequence of the human genome. Now, patients around the world are having their genomes sequenced every day. Since the first sequence was unveiled in 2003, the cost of whole-genome sequencing (WGS) has dropped from almost $1 billion to less than $1,000—allowing WGS to enter routine clinical care, potentially transforming the way we diagnose and treat disease. Large national initiatives to read individuals’ genomes are helping to drive this transition; the UK’s NHS England is currently sequencing 100,000 genomes, and the USA has plans to sequence 1 million genomes in the near future. A 2015 study predicts that up to 2 billion people worldwide could have their genomes sequenced within the next decade—comparable to the current reach of the Internet. With so many genomes to be sequenced, it is imperative that laws and policy ensure that individuals, and society, are protected from harm. While larger pieces of legislation—such as those protecting against discrimination—are needed internationally, guidance and policies around routine management are also required.

One area of particular concern is that of ‘secondary’ (or ‘incidental’) findings. While WGS provides a valuable opportunity to learn about genetic contributions to disease (‘primary’ findings), it can also reveal genetic information that may not be relevant to the health condition affecting the patient or their family. This includes genetic changes associated with other health conditions—ranging from medically actionable findings, such as genetic predispositions to breast cancer where treatment is available, to non-actionable findings, such as genetic changes associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. The American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics published recommendations suggesting a moral obligation to seek and return actionable secondary findings, fueling significant debate (1,2). Medical Genetics organizations from other countries (including Canada and Europe) have published more conservative guidelines restricting generation of secondary findings, at least until more evidence is available to support (or refute) clinical utility and assess wider impacts. Continue reading

Rawlsian Questions about CRISPR Gene Editing

By Kelly Dhru

We worship perfection because we can’t have it; if we had it, we would reject it. Perfection is inhuman, because humanity is imperfect. – Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet.

Pessoa may have had an “I told you so!” moment looking at the ethical debates over CRISPR-Cas9, which is the technology that has made the alteration of genomes easier. As we march towards fundamentally altering the code that governs our bodies, it is this very walk towards perfection that seems to scare us.

To start with, not enough can be said about the importance of CRISPR-Cas9, which is one of the most important scientific advances of our times. Because of this technology, we are now looking at the ability to combat some previously “incurable” genetic disorders. This technology is also opening up doors to tackle malaria, Zika and dengue fever in innovative ways and to potentially find a cure for cancer. Continue reading