What’s in a name? Why metaphors matter for genetics research

By Mildred K. Cho, PhD

In 2017, the US FDA approved a gene therapy for the first time. However, it’s important to remember that the term “gene therapy” has been an optimistic misnomer for nearly 30 years, since the first clinical trial of a gene-based intervention was initiated in 1990.  Although the FDA has now approved a handful of gene-based therapies, there are concerns about the viability of the approach in actual clinical practice.

Because of the decades-long struggles of the technology to live up to its hype, the term “gene therapy” has been heavily criticized for encouraging the “therapeutic misconception” and for conveying unwarranted “therapeutic optimism.” In addition, there is evidence of how clinical trial participants and investigators both overestimated benefits from research but also how research was framed as treatment.  As a result, many recommended the alternative term “gene transfer” to more accurately represent the purpose and benefit of the intervention.  We may never know exactly how much the use of the term “gene therapy” contributed to potential bias in perceptions of effectiveness and intent, but it does highlight the potential impact of language on the ethical conduct of research.

Similarly, the rhetoric surrounding the genetic “revolution” has been justly criticized. Our research published in Genetics in Medicine, the peer-reviewed journal of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG), suggests that researchers and advocates should not only avoid hyperbole, but also be more cautious and reflective about the use of metaphors.  We asked patients in a Northern California health system to tell us what the word biobank made them think of, and received a range of notable responses.  Some people associated the term with financial banks or gold mines, and others expressed suspicion of commercial motives of pharmaceutical or insurance companies for collecting and using biosamples.  Others associated the term with computers or databases, and some may have been misled by the association of biobank with the concept of electronically-accessible information, saying that a benefit of a health system’s research biobank-linked database was that patients could look up personally-relevant information in it directly and therefore not have to see a doctor. Continue reading

The Precision Medicine Initiative and Access

By Leslie Francis

Persistent differences in participation in clinical trials by race and ethnicity are well known; for example, the 2015 Report of the Working Group on Precision Medicine (PMI) relies on statistics that only 5% of clinical trial participants are African-American and only 1% are Hispanic. A recently-launched website of the FDA, “Drug Trials Snapshots,” confirms this dismal picture.

Designed to “make demographic data more available and transparent,” and to “highlight whether there were any differences in the benefits and side effects among sex, race and age groups,” the website reveals instead an impressive lack of information. Reported on the website are 70 new drug approvals for 78 different indications. These data report only evidence about differences by the census categories for race (White, Black or African-American, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and Unknown). In nine of the reported trials data were considered sufficient to report detected differences in efficacy or side-effects in all racial categories, in two data were considered sufficient to report these differences for African-Americans and Asians, in seven data were considered sufficient to report these differences for Asians, and in two data were considered sufficient to report these differences only for African-Americans. No data are reported about ethnicity, socioeconomic status, disability, or other categories that might be important to the PMI and the benefits data about the planned cohort might bring. Continue reading