Recently, there has been a re-emergence of gene patenting, an old issue that could impact the future of genetic research and medicine. On Wednesday, May 22, Senators Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Chris Coons (D-DE), along with Representatives Doug Collins (R-GA-9), Hank Johnson (D-GA-4), and Steve Stivers (R-OH-5) released text for a draft bill that seeks to reform Section 101 of the Patent Act. If passed, this legislation would effectively overturn the 2013 Association for Molecular Pathology (AMP) vs. Myriad Supreme Court decision, which ruled that our genomes are not eligible to be patented, as they occur in nature. Essentially, the bill would allow for the patenting of genes.
To provide a bit of history on the issue, back in 2009, AMP, along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), filed a lawsuit against Myriad Genetics, challenging the validity of Myriad’s patents on the isolated BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. AMP argued that these patents created extraordinary burdens for researchers, as they skyrocketed the cost of related testing and prevented further innovation. ASHG and several other medical associations submitted an amicus brief in support of AMP’s claims. In March 2010, the case was heard before the United States District Court of New York, where the judge ruled that products of nature could not be patented.
Upon successful appeal by Myriad, the case was eventually heard by the Supreme Court. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that isolated genes were still considered products of nature, and were not eligible to be patented.
This AMP vs. Myriad ruling has played a large part in fostering an environment where researchers and clinicians are unencumbered by patent barriers.
Reacting to the news of the pending legislation, ASHG President-Elect, Anthony Wynshaw-Boris, MD, PhD, stated, “ASHG remains firm with our support of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling of AMP vs. Myriad that established that naturally occurring DNA is not patentable because it is a product of nature. It allows researchers to investigate the entire genome without fear of legal barriers and repercussions, helping to advance genetic discoveries and the development of new diagnostics and treatments for patients.”
This week, a two-part hearing titled “The State of Patent Eligibility in America” was held by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, where Senators Tillis and Coons serve as Chairman and Ranking Member, respectively. In his opening remarks, Senator Coons stated that the bill does not intend to overrule the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, but instead hopes to draw the line for how much human intervention is needed to determine patent eligibility.
In his testimony, Charles Duan, Director of Technology and Innovation Policy at the R Street Institute, disagreed with Senator Coons’ claims, citing that the draft bill “provides that patent eligibility inheres in any ‘invention or discovery’ that arises ‘through human intervention.'”
Also amongst the panelists was Kate Ruane, Senior Legislative Counsel at the ACLU, who stated that the draft bill’s proposed revival of patent claims on genes would essentially violate the First Amendment, as it would deny scientists the ability to freely study and research genes. A third group of panelists will testify for a final hearing early next week.
ASHG will be following this impending legislation closely in the next coming weeks, and will alert ASHG members on any significant updates or grassroots advocacy efforts that may require your action and support. To stay up-to-date on the issue, be sure to subscribe to our monthly policy and advocacy email updates.
This week, ASHG and eight partner organizations issued a position statement outlining whether, and to what extent, there is a responsibility to recontact genetics and genomics research participants when new findings emerge that suggest their genetic information should be interpreted differently.
Variants of uncertain significance get reclassified at a relatively high rate – up to half of such variants have been reclassified in the past decade. One paper found that 12% of these reclassifications had the potential to alter clinical management.
We sat down with Yvonne Bombard, PhD; and Howard Levy, MD, PhD, lead authors on the statement, to get their take on the issue.
ASHG: Why did the Social Issues Committee tackle this topic?
Yvonne: Genetics and genomics researchers are at the forefront in collecting and analyzing data related to sequence variant interpretations, which is continuously evolving. This means that a variant’s clinical significance might be reinterpreted over time as new evidence emerges regarding its pathogenicity or lack thereof. This raises ethical, legal, and financial issues as to whether there is a responsibility to recontact research participants to provide updates on reinterpretations of variants after the initial analysis.
While clinical recommendations on the responsibility to recontact research participants with such reinterpretations have begun to emerge, the Social Issues Committee decided to tackle this topic because there is a lack of guidance on the responsibility for researchers. We were fortunate to have collaborative partners on our Workgroup from clinical, research, and laboratory settings across various countries and jurisdictions. The statement reflects their synergistic efforts and the care these members took to carefully craft a comprehensive set of recommendations.
Howard: Perhaps the most obvious but most important concept in this position statement is the recognition that recontacting individuals to keep them abreast of new knowledge is a desirable and laudable goal. The problem is that we live in a world of limited resources, and the cost of achieving this goal can be onerous.
As Yvonne points out, there is only limited guidance on recontact in the clinical arena, and none in the research arena. ASHG and our partner organizations are fortunate to count among our memberships expert clinicians, researchers, laboratorians, educators, counselors, social scientists, bioethicists, lawyers, and patient advocates from around the world. We are uniquely suited to address this topic with the broadest possible representation and perspective.
There is a long history of thinking about clinical care and research as independent, non-overlapping contexts. But in recent years we’ve been recognizing and grappling with the reality that the lines between the two are blurry and sometimes not well-defined. In genetics, many of us serve in both roles concurrently, which can create real or perceived conflicts of interest. It is incumbent on all of us to work as hard as we can to be aware of these potential conflicts and respond appropriately. Having principled and evidence-based guidelines upon which to rely is an invaluable resource in helping us to evaluate these situations and determine the right course of action.
ASHG: What are the key differences between the research and clinical contexts?
Howard: While the intent of biomedical research is ultimately to improve or maintain health and avoid, treat, or cure disease, the proximal goal is to generate knowledge that forms the foundation of that ultimate benefit to society. Direct benefit to individual research participants is wonderful when it occurs, but is not the primary purpose of the research. Conversely, clinical care puts the benefit of the patient front and center as the primary goal.
Thus, in the clinical context, recontact can be argued as furthering the goal of maintaining information and informed consent, so that individual benefits can be maximized and individual harms minimized. But in the research context, the ethical desirability of recontact is not as strong, because the main goal is generation of new knowledge, not individual benefit. In fact, recontact in the research context can be argued as ethically undesirable if the recontact consumes so much resource that the research itself can’t be completed. In addition, while there are mechanisms available to seek at least partial financial compensation for clinical recontact on a case-by-case basis, there is no such funding mechanism in the research context.
Yvonne: The workgroup carefully considered differences between the research and clinical contexts to determine a reasonable set of floor/ceiling recommendations, balancing these imperatives across research and laboratory settings. We also developed a decision tree, which walks a researcher through whether and how to implement these recommendations within their particular research context.
ASHG:What factors affect the strength of the responsibility to recontact?
Yvonne: The workgroup considered a variety of factors that would affect the strength of the responsibility to recontact, and recommended that this responsibility is stronger when:
The research is active, ongoing, has funding, and participant contact details are up-to-date
The informed consent process set an expectation of potential contact or recontact
There is high certainty about the new interpretation of the genetic variant
The reinterpretation would be relevant to the condition being investigated
If the interpretation of a given variant is related to the condition under study or reasonably expected to affect participants’ medical management, the Workgroup recommended that there is a strong responsibility for researchers to attempt to recontact participants to offer updated results. If the reinterpretation is not expected to affect medical management, recontact is advised rather than strongly recommended.
Conversely, the statement recommends that there is no responsibility for researchers to hunt or scan the genomic literature for changes in variant interpretation, and that any responsibility to recontact should be limited to the duration of research funding. Additional recommendations address the practicalities of informed consent, involvement of institutional review boards, timeliness and protocol of recontact, and structuring of future research studies.
Howard: Clinical utility to the participant is prioritized higher than personal utility or benefit to family members. And issues of practicality have to be considered, too. Some of these judgments may be subject to bias, and we therefore encourage consultation with and input from IRBs, ethics boards, and clinical consultants.
ASHG: How might advances in IT address practical challenges in fulfilling this responsibility?
Yvonne: Advances in IT will likely reduce the opportunity costs of recontact and open up new avenues of keeping patients and research participants informed. Most electronic medical record systems and many clinical laboratories now offer portals through which patients might see their data, interact with clinical, laboratory, and support staff, and access educational material. As our IT resources and our databases continue to evolve, it is plausible that much of the effort of recontact could become automated. When a variant is reclassified, an automated notification could be sent to all patients and research participants known to harbor that variant, alerting them of the revised interpretation and prompting them to log into the portal to view the new information and associated material.
Howard: As the volume of identified and re-interpreted variants continues to increase, IT solutions will be critical to handling these immensely large numbers at scale, at much lower cost, and more rapidly than doing so manually.
IT solutions can also reduce the risk of biased or uneven approaches to attempting recontact. Humans may consciously or subconsciously vary their method of communicating information, and sometimes make mistakes in adhering to informed consent, research protocols, and other policies governing the recontact process. An automated, algorithmic approach is still subject to human bias and error in creating and implementing the rules that drive the process, and is obviously not as personal as direct human communication, but is by definition consistent from case to case.
ASHG: What infrastructure would be needed to maximize the impact of such IT advances?
Yvonne: This future vision depends upon well-developed and interoperable databases, including both the interpretations of the variants and the lists of who has each variant. Potentially difficult questions about identity and privacy will need to be answered. There are also significant concerns about the “digital divide” and economic disparities; increasing reliance on IT solutions has the potential to create disparities among people who are unable to or choose not to utilize such resources. There will always be situations that require more nuance and explanation than an automated algorithm can achieve. But there is hope that IT enhancements can significantly lower the costs and barriers to recontacting research participants when it is considered desirable to do so.
Howard: Perhaps more challenging than creating the infrastructure of standardized and interoperable databases will be establishing societal and cultural expectations surrounding privacy, security and sharing of the data, and developing the necessary IT tools to collect, maintain, revise, and respect individuals’ preferences regarding such data sharing. With all of that in place, patient-facing portals built into IT systems and yet-to-be-developed apps can deliver timely and relevant information to consumers who choose to receive it, and pair that information with additional education and support modules to help them make the most of that information.
Yvonne Bombard, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation; Director of the St. Michael’s Hospital Genomics Health Services Research Program; and Scientist at the St. Michael’s Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute. Howard P. Levy, MD, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine & McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine at Johns Hopkins University.
Posted By: Eve Granatosky, PhD, ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellow
Around this time last year, I was putting the finishing touches on my dissertation and trying to coordinate a date for my thesis defense. This week, I helped prepare a United States Senator for an event on drug pricing and met with constituent groups on issues ranging from cancer research to school nutrition. This dramatic and exciting shift was only possible because of the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship.
Throughout most of my time in graduate school, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in science policy, and was looking for an opportunity that would allow me to apply my scientific expertise in rare diseases and preclinical drug discovery in a policy setting. The Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship was a great fit with my background and interest in exploring multiple spaces within the policy world. So far, I’ve had the chance to work in both the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government, and later this year I’ll complete my fellowship with the Policy and Advocacy team at ASHG. I’m currently about six months into my fellowship, and am happy to report that the experience so far has been just as excellent as I had hoped.
Budgetary and Strategic Planning at NHGRI
I started my fellowship in September within the Policy and Program Analysis Branch (PPAB) at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). Right away, I got to jump into several projects the branch was working on, including drafting the Institute’s Fiscal Year 2020 Congressional Budget Justification, an important step in NHGRI’s being funded each year. This was a great way to learn about many of the research projects funded by NHGRI and write about them in a way that was concise, engaging, and accessible. I also helped organize feedback from the wider genomics community that was collected as part of NHGRI’s ongoing strategic planning process.
A highlight of this rotation was presenting a poster at the annual NHGRI Symposium. My PPAB colleagues and I described some recent studies on public perceptions of the use of genetic data by law enforcement (particularly for solving cold cases) and discussed potential policy options to address genetic privacy. After surveying symposium participants on their own views on this topic, we learned that while the NHGRI community was mostly supportive of the use of genetic data for law enforcement for solving crimes, they overall reported having more concerns about their genetic privacy than do members of the general public who have been surveyed.
A Wide Range of Health and Education Topics on the Hill
This January, I started my second fellowship rotation, in the office of Senator Richard Blumenthal from my home state of Connecticut. I work with two other staffers on the health and education portfolios, including issues related to biomedical research. Within the health space, I’ve worked on a wide range of issues, including antibiotic stewardship, e-cigarettes, prescription drugs, and dietary supplements. In education, I’m working on issues related to social and emotional learning and oversight of predatory colleges and universities.
So far, I’ve been involved in both long-term projects in these areas as well as the day-to-day business of the office. I really enjoy getting to meet with Connecticut constituents to discuss their priorities and concerns – I feel like I learn something new every meeting and it’s fascinating to get to hear about so many different topics.
Another major part of my job as a fellow is drafting bills, letters, memos, and briefings for the Senator to help him prepare for events. Putting together memos and briefings is probably where my research and analysis skills from graduate school are most valuable. These documents need to succinctly synthesize what a particular event is about, what stakeholders are involved and what their perspectives are, what past legislative or oversight work the Senator has done in that issue area, and what message he should try to get across in his remarks. Overall, I really like the pace of my office and the scope of issues I work on, and I’m looking forward to what the next few months will bring!
Applying My Scientific Training in a Policy Environment
As I look back on the past six months, I realize how valuable this fellowship has been for my career and professional development. I’ve solidified my interest in pursuing a path in science policy, and thought more specifically about what kind of professional positions I might like to pursue in the future. I’m constantly refining my communication skills, particularly in writing for different audiences and purposes. I’m improving my project and time management skills, and learning to how to prioritize short- and long-term goals. Maybe most importantly, I really like what I’m doing! This fellowship has shown me first hand that I can apply my scientific training outside of a research environment in a way that’s both personally and professionally fulfilling.
I would definitely recommend this fellowship to any early career genetics professionals who are interested in careers in policy. Beyond getting to do the kind of awesome work I talked about here, you’ll benefit from mentorship and support from the whole community of fellowship alumni. Thank you to ASHG and NHGRI for making this experience possible, and I can’t wait to see what the rest of my fellowship brings!
Questions about what the position is like? Read on for real-world details from past Fellows about their experiences.
How is the position structured?
The Fellowship lasts for 16 months, during which time the Fellow rotates through three positions within the Policy and Program Analysis Branch of NHGRI, a congressional office of a member of Congress or a committee, and the Policy & Advocacy Department at ASHG. This allows Fellows to gain experience in different roles of national policymaking and decide which aspects of policy and work settings they are interested in pursuing as a career.
2016-17 Fellow Christa Wagner said, “The ASHG/NHGRI Fellowship has provided me with a diverse array of experiences, both in terms of topics covered and settings in which I worked on policy. The Fellowship provides an exceptional experience for those with a background in genetics to play a role in effective policymaking.”
Cari Young, 2015-16 Genetics & Public Policy Fellow, walks us through her experiences.
What kind of work will I do?
While it depends on the needs of each organization at the time of arrival, 2017-18 Fellow Nikki Meadows gave us a look into her work during two of her rotations through several blog posts.
During her rotation with the Senate HELP Committee, Nikki organized a panel of genetics experts to answer questions from congressional staff working on health issues. This allowed her the opportunity to network with seasoned geneticists and help enhance the scientific knowledge of congressional staff. At ASHG, Nikki also provided updates to members on important policy issues such as the federal biomedical research budget and genetic privacy. She additionally promoted the ASHG Advocacy Center and encouraged scientists to make use of these vital tools, both at the 2018 Annual Meeting and through online forums.
While these certainly weren’t all of Nikki’s duties, she explored several areas of work with a variety of audiences. Nikki said, “I had some amazing opportunities during the course of this Fellowship. I’ve gained so much from this program, both personally and professionally, that I am forever changed by it.”
Will this position help further my career?
The rotational aspect of the position is a huge bonus to many applicants. 2015-16 Fellow Cari Young said, “This Fellowship provided a unique opportunity to take on varied roles within the science and health policy landscape, allowing me to experience the pros and cons of working in each setting and helping me to crystallize my thinking on where I might want to go next. It alsomade me a more marketable applicant for policy positions beyond the Fellowship.” As Fellows gain experience in different areas of public policy in just 16 months, it is a vital starting point that lays a solid base.
Being a Fellow additionally opens a new professional network to benefit from. 2012-13 Fellow Laura Koontz said, “Not only has the experience been invaluable, the network of Fellows I’ve joined as an alumna are among the best policy professionals in D.C. The Fellowship has also allowed me to fully realize my commitment to bettering the lives and treatment of people with cancer – the reason I got into scientific research in the first place!”
What kind of jobs might I get afterwards?
Check out our policy fellowship page to see where all our past Fellows are working now! Our Fellows have gone on to positions at the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the White House, and a number of other organizations focused on science and health.
Applications are open now through April 19, 2019. Apply today!
Posted by: Eve Granatosky, PhD, 2018-19 Genetics & Public Policy Fellow
Earlier this month, I attended the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held right here in Washington, DC. Themed ‘Science Transcending Boundaries,’ the program featured sessions on how science can bring together people, ideas, and solutions from different disciplines and sectors to address the world’s most pressing problems. This conference was very different from others I’ve attended in the past, which have focused on one specific scientific area. The AAAS Meeting also had a strong focus on science policy and communication, and I was excited to attend those sessions as well as explore scientific talks in different areas.
A common theme across the policy and communication sessions was the importance of understanding your audience – what are their priorities, and what information is valuable and relevant to them? At one session, panelists discussed the many legitimate influences on policy and policymakers, and how scientific evidence is usually only one factor that contributes to decision making. In another, panelists spoke about the challenges of getting usable scientific information to policymakers, and described the important role of boundary organizations that span the science-policy interface in facilitating effective two-way communication. Later on in the conference, panelists discussed how science is frequently used strategically rather than substantively in policy (i.e. to support an existing position rather than develop that position).
The final session of the conference brought many of these ideas together. In “Science Activation: How Do We Get Our Science Used by Those in Power?”, seismologist Lucy Jones reflected on her experience in successfully working with local government and private industry in Los Angeles to better prepare the city for future earthquakes. Her tips and lessons included:
Scientists and non-scientists have different communication styles, and scientists’ emphasis on uncertainty can hinder effective communication.
Use scientific information to reduce uncertainty whenever possible, by focusing on describing future scenarios based on scientific consensus rather than the probabilities of potential outcomes.
Provide policymakers with actionable information to empower them to make decisions, and maintain relationships with stakeholders throughout the process.
Another policy-related highlight of the meeting was an appearance by Kelvin Droegemeier, PhD, the newly confirmed head of the White House Office on Science and Technology Policy. In his first public speech since assuming this position, he highlighted the progress made in science and technology during the Trump administration, including advances in artificial intelligence, quantum sciences, 5G networks, and manufacturing. He also emphasized the role of the private sector in supporting basic research, and the value of assessing all work being done in our country’s research ecosystem, including research in the academic, industrial, nonprofit, and federal agency sectors. By leveraging the strengths of each sector to build new public-private partnerships, he hopes to usher in a “second bold era” of science in the United States. Finally, Dr. Droegemeier acknowledged the need to create safe, welcoming, and accommodating environments for research, as well as to reduce administrative burden for scientists.
The need to improve the climate within science was also addressed at a session entitled “Societies Combatting Sexual Harassment in STEMM Fields,” which formally introduced the Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment in STEMM. This group of almost 60 scientific societies (including ASHG!) plans to develop resources and guidance to address sexual and gender harassment in all its forms, in both society-organized operations like conferences and broadly within the societies’ scientific fields.
Between all of this excellent policy programming, I attended some great scientific sessions as well, on topics ranging from vaccine development to space exploration. Genetics was best represented at a session entitled “Race, Sex, and Genes: Shaping Bodies, Shifting Boundaries, Challenging Myths,” which delved into how social and biological factors intertwine to contribute to health disparities. Panelists discussed how human genetic variation does exist, but is distributed more geographically and as a gradient than on the strict racial lines dictated by society. They also discussed the complexities of consumer genetic tests in relation to group identity, saying that these tests can be valuable for marginalized people looking to reconnect to their ancestral communities, but should not be used to claim group membership.
Overall, I really enjoyed my time at AAAS 2019! I would highly recommend future editions of this conference for anyone who is interested in science policy and communication, or who is interested in expanding their scientific horizons and learning about new topics.
Eve Granatosky, PhD, is the 2018-19 ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellow. She is currently in her second rotation in the United States Congress, working on health and education issues for Senator Richard Blumenthal. Interested in this fellowship? Applications will open in late February.
The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) deeply believes that ongoing federal government support is essential for the scientific enterprise in the United States. We affirm the important role of normal operations to keep scientific progress moving forward.
Although – fortunately – the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is operational during the partial U.S. government shutdown, other science-based agencies that support and facilitate ASHG members’ work and that of their colleagues are not. Notably, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is affected.
ASHG is proud to stand with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in letting Congress know how the shutdown is affecting science. Please use FASEB’s Legislative Action Center to contact your members of Congress about how the shutdown is impeding progress and reaffirm the importance of science agencies in advancing research.
Genetic counseling is an integral part of advancing human genetics in medical care and vital to our collective research agenda. Recognizing this, ASHG took action last week in strong support of H.R. 7083, the Access to Genetic Counselor Services Act of 2018, which would expand access to genetic counseling services for Medicare beneficiaries. We took this action under the leadership of the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC), and are proud to add our largest voice in the human genetics community to urge this policy change. NSGC is our valued partner on this legislation and other new programming to serve genetic counselors in research.
Specifically, I wrote to bill sponsors Representatives Erik Paulsen (R-MN) and David Loebsack (D-IA) expressing the Society’s gratitude for introducing this legislation and for seeking to resolve a problem that has existed for many years (see image). Currently, while genetic counseling is covered under Medicare, genetic counselors themselves are not currently recognized as providers by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that runs the program. This means that genetic counselors are unable to bill directly for any services rendered to Medicare beneficiaries.
H.R. 7083 is designed to resolve this coverage gap. If it were to become law, this bill would recognize licensed genetic counselors as Medicare healthcare providers, and further establish a path for Medicare reimbursement for other genetic counselors. In this way, it will reduce the access issues to genetic counseling services currently faced by Medicare beneficiaries.
For this bill to become law, it will need to be passed by Congress in the next few days. Given the many steps in the legislative process, this is highly unlikely. However, we hope that the legislation is re-introduced when the Congress reconvenes next year and that Congress advances it swiftly through the legislative process.
David L. Nelson, PhD, is the 2018 President of ASHG. He is a Cullen Foundation Professor of Molecular and Human Genetics at the Baylor College of Medicine, Associate Director of the BCM Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center, and Director of the BCM Integrative Molecular and Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program.