The ongoing debate about whether, what, when and how to feedback incidental findings (IFs) from whole genome sequencing continues to rage on both sides of the Atlantic following the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics’ controversial recommendations on reporting IFs released last month. In an unexpected twist, the authors of the guidance have now written “a clarification” in response to the many criticisms that have been raised including here on GenomesUnzipped. The clarification covers five points – autonomy, children, labs, communication and interpretation.
Author Archive for Caroline Wright
By now, we’re probably all familiar with Niels Bohr’s famous quote that “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”. Although Bohr’s experience was largely in quantum physics, the same problem is true in human genetics. Despite a plethora of genetic variants associated with disease – with frequencies ranging from ultra-rare to commonplace, and effects ranging from protective to catastrophic – variants where we can accurately predict the severity, onset and clinical implications are still few and far between. Phenotypic heterogeneity is the norm even for many rare Mendelian variants, and despite the heritable nature of many common diseases, genomic prediction is rarely good enough to be clinically useful.
The breadth of genomic complexity was really brought home to me a few weeks ago while listening to a range of fascinating talks at the Genomic Disorders 2013 conference. Set against a policy backdrop that includes the recent ACMG guidelines recommending opportunistic screening of 57 genes, and ongoing rumblings in the UK about the 100,000 NHS genomes, the lack of predictability in genomic medicine is rather sobering. For certain genes and diseases, we can or will be able to make accurate and clinically useful predictions; but for many, we can’t and won’t. So what’s the problem? In short, context matters – genomic, environmental and phenotypic. Here are six reasons why genomic prediction is hard, all of which were covered by one or more speakers at Genomic Disorders (I recommend reading to the end – the last one on the list is rather surprising!):
Guest Co-Author: Dr Anna Middleton is an Ethics Researcher and Registered Genetic Counsellor, based at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, UK.
The American College of Medical Genetics (ACMG) has recently published recommendations for reporting incidental findings (IFs) in clinical exome and genome sequencing. These advocate actively searching for a set of specific IFs unrelated to the condition under study. For example, a two year old child may have her (and her parents’) exome sequenced to explore a diagnosis for intellectual disability and at the same time will be tested for a series of cancer and cardiac genetic variants. The ACMG feel it is unethical not to look for a series of incidental conditions while the genome is being interrogated, conditions that the patient or their family may be able to take steps to prevent. This flies in the face of multiple International guidelines that advise against testing children for adult onset conditions. The ACMG justify this as “a fiduciary duty to prevent harm by warning patients and their families”. They conclude that “this principle supersedes concerns about autonomy”, i.e. the duty of the clinician to perform opportunistic screening outweighs the patients right not to know about other genetic conditions and their right to be able to make autonomous decisions about testing.
One of the major bioethical debates in clinical genetics and genomics research is the issue of what to do with incidental or secondary findings (IFs) unrelated to the original clinical or research question. Every genome contains thousands of rare variants, including a surprising number of loss of function variants, as well as hundreds of variants associated with common disease and dozens linked with recessive conditions. As whole genome or exome sequencing is used more routinely in non-anonymised cohorts – such as the 100,000 patient genomes to be sequenced by the UK NHS – these variants will be uncovered and linked to an increasing number of individuals. What should we do with them?
Robert Green of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who co-chairs the American College of Medical Genetics (ACMG) working group on secondary findings, was quoted in a Nature blog last year saying, “we don’t think it’s going to be a sustainable strategy for the evolving practice of genomic medicine to ignore secondary findings of medical importance”. But just saying it doesn’t make it so. There are still numerous questions that need to be addressed – you can be part of the debate by participating in the Sanger Institute’s Genomethics survey.
The recent announcement that the UK Government has earmarked £100 million to “sequence 100,000 whole genomes of NHS patients at diagnostic quality over the next three to five years” raises a number of questions, with which the Department of Health are no doubt grappling as I write. I’ve previously discussed the thorny issue of using targeted versus whole genome sequencing to maximize diagnostic yield and benefit patients. However, one of the great achievements of next generation sequencing technologies is to make the assay – actually sequencing genome (or some portion of it) – one of the easier parts of clinical genomics. Although laboratories will have to be suitably equipped, staffed and flexibly managed to deal with high sample throughput and ever changing scientific specifications, the biggest challenge will be to implement genomic knowledge in the clinic.
On 10th December 2012, UK Prime Minister David Cameron launched a Report on the Strategy for UK Life Sciences One Year On by announcing that the Government has earmarked £100 million to “sequence 100,000 whole genomes of NHS patients at diagnostic quality over the next three to five years”. This ambitious initiative – which will focus initially on cancer, rare diseases and infectious diseases – aims to train a new generation of genetic scientists, stimulate the UK life sciences industry and “revolutionise” patient care.
There is no doubt that this investment offers a major opportunity for the UK to firmly establish itself as a world-leader in medical genomics. However, deciding how best to use the £100M to maximise patient benefit will be a challenge. There are numerous implementation issues, outlined in the PHG Foundation’s response to the announcement. Not least of these is the urgent need for informatics provision to facilitate storage, processing, annotation, interpretation and secure access to both genomic and phenotypic data. This will involve determining appropriate ethical and operational standards across a broad range of questions.
But there is one particularly crucial question that needs to be answered early on: what is the most appropriate assay to use for clinical implementation? All the literature released by the Government, and quoted extensively by the press, states quite categorically that the money will be used for “sequencing whole genomes”. Surely this can’t really be true? (I certainly hope it’s just coincidence that if you multiply a £1000 genome by 100,000 patients you reach the magic figure of £100 million…) If it is the case, there are several major problems.
The PHG Foundation, an independent genomics think-tank, has launched a new report on next generation sequencing and its impact on health and health systems. The Report, Next steps in the sequence: the implications of whole genome sequencing for health in the UK can be freely downloaded and aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the many and varied issues relating to clinical genome sequencing.
When planning the work, we were motivated by the astonishingly rapid development of fast, affordable whole genome sequencing (WGS) technologies, which are set to change many aspects of health care. The sheer quantity and complexity of the information generated by genome sequencing, along with ever-changing understanding of the function of genomes in health and disease, presents new challenges for health systems.
The Report reviews the technologies, informatics pipeline and key clinical applications of WGS, and as well as the economic, ethical, legal and social implications and organisational challenges of offering WGS within the UK NHS. The final two policy chapters outline different scenarios for testing, storing and returning results, and contains 10 key recommendations reached with the help of several expert stakeholder workshops.
As the previous posts from Clive Brown and Adam Rutherford have indicated, there has long been enormous hype and hope surrounding the human genome project and the prospect of a $1000 genome. But what do these developments really mean for the general public? What do we need to know – either as individuals or as health care providers – before we can decide whether it’s worth having a genome sequenced?
Before starting to unpick some of the issues involved in the responsible and effective use of personal genome sequences, it’s worth reviewing how, where and why someone might actually have their genome sequenced. There are currently essentially three different and nonequivalent contexts in which an individual could have their genome sequenced:
Continue reading ‘Responsible and effective use of personal genomes’
This week has seen another FDA meeting seeking guidance on how to regulate direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic tests in the US. The meeting itself has been covered by GNZ bloggers Daniel at Genetic Future and Dan at Genomics Law Report, and its apparent outcome has sparked furious debate elsewhere. The discussion among the “independent” panel convened at the meeting appeared to converge on the proposal that all health-related genomic tests should be ordered and reported through physicians. However, the outcomes of the meeting in terms of FDA policy remain unclear, and one FDA official has indicated that decisions about the availability of genetic tests will be made on a test-by-test basis.
There is no doubt that the appropriate regulation of personal genomics tests is a complex issue, and there is a diversity of opinion about how best to achieve it within GNZ (as there is throughout the genomics community). However, there are several points we agree on:
- Individuals have a fundamental right to access information about themselves, including genetic information. While it is important to also consider the accuracy, interpretation, validity and utility of tests, this underlying principle should guide policy.
- There is currently no evidence that DTC genetic tests pose a danger to consumers. A recent study of over 2,000 participants in DTC testing concluded that “testing did not result in any measurable short-term changes in psychological health”. In the absence of any evidence of harm there is no justification for restricting individual autonomy.
- DNA does not have magical powers, and does not require special treatment simply by virtue of being DNA. Genetic exceptionalism – the idea that genetics must be treated as special under the law – is an inappropriate basis for policy-making. Tests should be regulated appropriately based on their predictive power, utility and potential for harm, all of which are related concepts.
- As DNA sequencing becomes cheaper, the line between medical and non-medical testing will continue to blur. Excessive regulation of health-related genetic tests could also unncessarily hinder the ability of people to access their entire genome sequences for other purposes (such as genetic genealogy).
- Most clinicians do not have the appropriate knowledge to interpret genomic tests, particularly in healthy individuals. This point is almost universally agreed, even by the FDA, and has certainly been the experience of some of the GNZ members upon taking our genetic results to doctors. Physicians in general are therefore a strange choice for ‘guardians of the genome’.
- Most early adopters of DTC genetic tests are sufficiently well-informed to understand the implications of a genomic test and interpret the results correctly. Putting a general physician between these informed individuals and their own genomes is paternalistic and unnecessary.
While the outcome of the FDA’s deliberations remain uncertain, it is clear that there will be intensive lobbying against any attempt at excessive legislation. In the worst case scenario, the fledgling and innovative personal genomics market could be crushed by the FDA. However, there is still plenty of room for a measured approach that enforces test accuracy, punishes false claims and promotes informed choices by consumers, without reducing the ability of responsible companies to continue to operate and innovate.
We urge others in the genomics community to make their voices heard on these issues. Let the FDA – and, if you’re based in the USA, your political representatives – know that regulation of genetic testing should be based on evidence, not fear, and that any attempt to unreasonably restrict your access to your own genetic information is unacceptable.
For some people, genetic information is formidably powerful. It can reveal that you have inherited a debilitating disease which lies unavoidably in your future, that you have a massively increased susceptibility to a particular cancer which can only be mitigated by surgery, or that you are not biologically related to your parents and siblings.
But, for many people, it’s actually quite mundane and uninformative. I’m one of those people. Undergoing genome-wide profiling was interesting, educational and worthwhile, and I would certainly recommend it as a voyage of exploration. But it hasn’t really been useful for my health. (It’s perhaps worth noting that a SNP profile covers only a fraction of the potential disease-causing variants, but nonetheless I doubt there’s anything I need to be scared of lurking in the rest of my genome.)
So, what did I learn?
Continue reading ‘My delightfully uninteresting genome’