Direct-to-consumer genetic testing: empowering people to hurt themselves?

December 4, 2013

There are two tempting pictures of the human. One is that we (ideally) are autonomous individuals who make rational choices on the basis of information. The other picture is that our individuality is coded in our DNA.

These pictures work in tandem in the marketing of direct-to-consumer genetic testing. The website of the personal genomics company, 23andMe, features their DNA “spit kit.” On the half-open lid you can read: Welcome to you.

That’s the DNA picture: Your DNA contains the information about you. For 99 dollars and a saliva sample you’ll get to know who you are.

If you click Order now, you encounter the other picture: Knowledge is power. By buying this product, you’ll be empowered to better manage your health and wellness. You’ll get information about diseases you risk developing and diseases you are less likely developing, and can plan your life accordingly.

That’s the autonomy picture: You are the driver of your life. For 99 dollars and a saliva sample, you are empowered as rational decision-maker about your health.

The combination of the two pictures is a powerful marketing campaign that can be followed on YouTube.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently sent a warning letter to 23andMe, urging them to immediately stop marketing the test. The device isn’t just any commercial product, but is to be seen as medical technology. This implies certain quality standards:

  • “…we still do not have any assurance that the firm has analytically or clinically validated the PGS for its intended uses…”

FDA also expresses concern about public health consequences if the test doesn’t work reliably. A false positive risk assessment for breast or ovarian cancer “could lead a patient to undergo prophylactic surgery, chemoprevention, intensive screening, or other morbidity-inducing actions, while a false negative could result in a failure to recognize an actual risk that may exist.”

Another concern is that patients who receive assessments of their personal drug responses may begin to self-manage their doses or abandon their therapies.

Genetic tests will no doubt play significant roles in the future. But genetic risk information is tremendously complex and its predictive value difficult to assess. The danger is that the deceptively simple marketing rhetoric of empowering individuals to take charge of their lives currently rather might empower people to hurt themselves.

The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences decided this autumn to support a joint European research program on genetic risk information. The program is led by Mats G. Hansson at CRB. Click the link below for a summary of the program:

FDA’s warning letter to 23andMe underlines the timeliness of the new program. More on this in the future!

Pär Segerdahl

Following the news - the ethics blog


Being human; representing life

September 10, 2013

A new article reconsiders Henrietta Lacks and the immortal HeLa cells that were obtained from her rare cancer tumor in the 1950s; cells that still replicate and are used in biomedical laboratories all over the world:

The article is written by Anna Lydia Svalastog and Lucia Martinelli, both members of the Culture, Health and Bioethics network at CRB.

There is a lot going on in the article, making it difficult to summarize. As I understand it, though, the article focuses on two fields of tension when biological samples from humans are used in biomedical research – tensions between:

  1. being human; and representing biological life,
  2. the value of the one; and the value of the many.

Both fields of tension intersect in the case of Henrietta Lacks:

  1. Henrietta Lacks was a human being, existing in a human world; but HeLa cells function as “bio-objects” representing biological life.
  2. Henrietta Lacks was one unique individual; but HeLa cells have come to represent humanity.

These tensions highlight the interchange between research and society. We exist as human beings; but by donating samples to research, we also contribute to representing biological life. We are unique individuals; but through our samples, we also contribute to representing what is general.

The authors cite the European biobank infrastructure, BBMRI, as an approach to governance and ownership of knowledge and property that begins to address these tensions in interesting, new ways. The article also speaks in favour of interdisciplinary collaboration between the life sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, to understand the fields of tension that arise when individual human beings contribute to medical research.

Pär Segerdahl

Part of international collaborations - the Ethics Blog


Commercial gene tests and incidental findings

October 25, 2012

I read Arthur Caplan’s criticism of the personalized gene tests that some companies insist we must buy to gain control over our future health. I could not help wondering if his criticism is applicable also to the idea that biobanks should inform research participants about incidental findings about their genes.

Caplan rejects the crystal ball view of genetic information that is utilized in the marketing for commercial gene tests: the image that genetic information is uniquely predictive about YOUR future health.

The crystal ball image is a prejudice. It is a gene myth that makes people believe they MUST get genetic information to control their future health. It is a myth that makes people think they have a RIGHT to look into the crystal ball, now that this uniquely powerful instrument is available.

But disease risk is the result of complex interactions between genes and environment, and “no one knows how a single person’s lifestyle, upbringing and environment interacts with their particular genes to create risks,” Caplan writes.

If this is true and genetic information in abstraction is far from predictive, then I cannot avoid worrying about how the crystal ball image shapes also the ethical discussion about incidental findings in genomic biobank research.

In this discussion, accidentally discovered individual genetic variation is sometimes described as a good that participants have a right to be informed about, in return for the biological material they donate to the biobank.

If Caplan is right and such information typically is not worth the money, how can it be a good that participants have a right to receive such information from the biobank in return for their sample?

Do well-meant ethical arguments sometimes resemble unethical marketing campaigns?

Pär Segerdahl

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog


How unspecific is broad consent?

September 13, 2012

In response to an informative article on personalized medicine and biobanking in Nature Biotechnology, a recent letter to the Editor defends broad consent for biobanking.

The three letter writers emphasize the patient and donor perspective:

  • “…patient donors actually express concern that study-specific consent can be burdensome and impede research.”

Given these donors’ desire to give so-called broad consent, I want to highlight two problematic aspects of the distinction between specific and broad consent.

The first is that the word “broad” consent may give rise to the impression that the consent is so general and vague that it cannot be seen as informed consent to anything specific at all. But broad consent is not “broad” in such an absolute sense, akin to vagueness. It is “broad” only in a relative sense: in relation to the historically more prevalent case of consenting to individual research projects.

The distinction between specific and broad consent is a distinction between two ways of being specific. One of these ways of being specific dominated the scene first. It therefore functioned as a linguistic standard. The other way of being specific had to put up with being called “broad.”

Specific consent, then, is specific only in a specific sense: one that is historically conditioned and changeable. It is not the golden standard of exactitude. Consent can therefore be “broad” without being vague.

The second problematic aspect is that when people donate samples to biobanks, the exact nature of the individual research projects that might use their samples is less relevant to them than when they consent to invasive procedures in clinical trials.

The risks are minimal in biobank research. Donors therefore look more to the practical utility of the research than to the research itself. Forcing them to consider the purposes and questions and procedures of individual research projects is forcing them to attend to a level of medical research that is less relevant to them as donors.

In short, a historically and linguistically insensitive demand for “specific consent” in biobanking may hinder donors from giving the kind of specific consent they authentically want to give in this new but more and more prevalent context.

Pär Segerdahl

Minding our language - the Ethics Blog


Collection of papers brings out neglected aspect of ethics

April 26, 2012

If you wrestle with ethical and legal difficulties associated with genetic science, a recent virtual issue of the Hastings Center Report could be good to think with.

The issue collects earlier material on ethics and genetics. There are pieces about the perils of genetic-specific legislation; about the difficulties of understanding behavioral genetics; about the prospects of personalized medicine; about the meaning of transhumanism; and much else.

Reading the virtual collection, it strikes me that our ethical difficulties surprisingly seldom are of a purely evaluative kind, or about what is morally right or wrong, or about what we ethically should or should not do.

Our ethical challenges are more typically about thinking well; about understanding complex facts properly; about avoiding tempting oversimplifications in our descriptions of reality.

In short, our ethical challenges are very much about facing reality well.

The philosopher Bernard Williams spoke of thick ethical concepts: notions like “courage” that seem to have both evaluative and descriptive content.

I am inclined to say that ethics is “thick” in this sense. Ethics is more often than not about describing reality justly. Ethical challenges are surprisingly often about coming to terms with oversimplified descriptions that prompt premature normative conclusions.

Just consider these two tempting oversimplifications of genetics, which produce an abundance of normative and political conclusions:

  1. The mistaken assumption that if the main source of variation is not genetic, it will be fairly easy to make environmental interventions.
  2. The mistaken assumption that if the primary source of variation is genetic, environmental interventions will be useless.

These assumptions are discussed in Erik Parens’ paper about why talking about behavioral genetics is important and difficult (on page 13).

Even though it is not its purpose, the virtual collection of papers on genetics makes it conspicuous how often our ethical challenges are of a descriptive kind.

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog


Introspective genomics and the significance of one

March 28, 2012

As a philosopher, I am familiar with the image of the solitary thinker who studies the human mind though introspective study of his own. A recent article in the journal Cell reminds me of that image, but in unexpected “genomic” guise.

To achieve statistical significance, medical researchers typically engage large numbers of research subjects. The paper in Cell, however, has only one research subject: the lead author of the paper, Michael Snyder.

Snyder and colleagues studied how his body functioned molecularly and genetically over a 14-month period. Samples from Snyder were taken on 20 separate occasions. A personal “omics profile” was made by integrating information about his genomic sequence with other molecular patterns gathered from the samples, as these patterns changed over time.

Early results indicated that Snyder was genetically disposed to type 2 diabetes. Strangely enough, the disease began to develop during the course of the study. Snyder could follow in detail how two virus infections and the diabetes developed molecularly and genetically in his body.

Snyder changed his life style to handle his diabetes. When he informed his life-insurance company about the disease, however, his premiums became dramatically more expensive.

The introspective paper illustrates the potential usefulness, as well as the risks, of what has been dubbed “personalized medicine.” Here I want speculate, though, on how this new paradigm in medicine challenges scientific and intellectual ideals.

When philosophers introspectively studied the human mind, they took for granted that what they found within themselves was shared by all humans. The general could be found completely instantiated in the particular.

The particular was for philosophers no more than a mirror of the general. What they saw in the mirror was not the individual mirror (it was intellectually invisible). What they saw in the mirror was a reflection of the general (and only the general was intellectually visible).

That simple image of the relation between the particular and the general was discarded with Darwin’s theory of the origin of species. A species has no essence shared by all individuals. Therefore, to achieve scientific generality about what is human, you cannot rely on one human subject only. You need many subjects, and statistics, to achieve intellectual vison of general facts.

A noteworthy feature of the paper under discussion is that we seem partly to have returned to the era of introspective research. We return to it, however, without the discarded notion of the particular as mirror of the general.

New molecular techniques seem to open up for study of what previously were simply individual cases without significance in themselves. For personalized medicine, each subject unfolds as a universe; as a world full of significant processes.

By studying the “genomic universe” of one person and following it over a period of time time, Snyder and colleagues could discern processes that would have been invisible if they had superimposed data from several distinct research subjects.

This new significance of the particular is fascinating and novel from an intellectual perspective. Has the traditional contempt for the particular case been overcome in personalized medicine?

Speaking personally as a philosopher, I cannot avoid seeing this aspect of personalized medicine as congenial with certain philosophical tendencies.

I am thinking of tendencies to investigate (and compare) particular cases without magnifying them on a wall of philosophical abstraction, as if only the general was intellectually visible. I am thinking of serious attempts to overcome the traditional contempt for the particular case.

We seem to have arrived at a new conception of one and many; at a new conception of the particular case as visible and worthy of study.

Pär Segerdahl

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog


Personalized medicine against the diabetes epidemic?

March 16, 2012

When promising technologies see the light, it can be difficult to make sound predictions about their future utility.

Technical breakthroughs that promise to transform society tend to bewitch the mind. Their tremendous potential begs for interpretation by more dreamlike imaginary powers.

When nuclear power was young, for example, the impact this new technology promised to have on society was interpreted by some in the futuristic imagery of nuclear reactors in every car, in every house, and in every kitchen range.

For a short while, every human energy problem seemed to have a nuclear solution.

Today, new gene sequencing technology is beginning to transform how we think about medicine. Personalized medicine is just around the corner. It promises to adapt both prevention and treatment of disease to the individual’s genome.

– How far can this promising new form of medicine be taken?

Two investigators from Albert Einstein College of Medicine recently suggested personalized medicine as a solution to the obesity and diabetes epidemic in the US and other parts of the world… where eating habits call for alarm.

The authors’ argue that costly prevention efforts could be targeted at those individuals whose genomes make them most likely to benefit. Such a personalized approach to the diabetes epidemic is suggested not only for the US, but also for developing countries where diabetes is spreading rapidly and public health resources are scarce.

I’m certain that personalized medicine will be very useful both in prevention and treatment of diabetes. But is it reasonable as a solution to the diabetes epidemic?

I may be wrong. But I cannot avoid seeing the suggestion as an attempt to “find a personalized medicine solution to every human health problem.”

Instead of targeting high risk individuals, and doing so generation after generation while we continue to expose them to the same dangerous eating habits that low-risk individuals adopt (and are enticed to adopt), why not consider efforts (like those of Jamie Oliver) to change globally spreading eating habits?

I admit that my judgment may be wrong and that I fail to understand the potential in this particular case.

What is the answer to the obesity and diabetes epidemic? Revolutionary medicine or a food revolution?

Pär Segerdahl

We like challenging questions - the ethics blog


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