ASHG and the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG) have partnered together to launch a series of congressional briefings on Capitol Hill to educate Congress on the importance of genetics and genomics research and medicine. Congressional briefings provide an opportunity for organizations to engage members of Congress and their staff on a particular topic or issue.
For genetics and genomics, it is important that members of Congress and their staff understand the value that sustained federal funding holds for genetics and genomics research, and its translation to clinical applications that benefit patients and research institutions nationwide.
On Thursday, September 26, the initial briefing in this series was held, titled, “The Undiagnosed Diseases Network (UDN): The Interface of Research and Clinical Care to Solve Medical Mysteries,” sponsored by Representative Dave Loebsack (D-IA). Gail Jarvik, MD, PhD, ASHG Secretary and Co-Principal Investigator at the University of Washington UDN, moderated the briefing.
In her opening remarks, Dr. Jarvik noted the value of this ASHG-ACMG partnership and the significance of highlighting the UDN, stating, “The expertise of these two organizations and their members spans the facet of genetics from basic research to clinical practice. Just as research informs clinical practice, information learned in the clinic also informs research. Not only is the Undiagnosed Diseases Network an excellent example of this, but it is also a great example of how federal funding for such a program can broadly impact clinical care and research beyond the program itself.”
Additional speakers included Bill Gahl, MD, PhD, Director of the Undiagnosed Diseases Program at NHGRI; John Phillips, III, MD, Co-Principal Investigator at the Vanderbilt University UDN; and Danny Miller, the father of two patients who were diagnosed through the Stanford University UDN.
Dr. Gahl spoke about the history of how his work with the Undiagnosed Diseases Program eventually evolved into the NIH-funded Undiagnosed Diseases Network in 2013. Dr. Phillips went into detail about some of the research and diagnoses he has been able to complete through the UDN, and how the UDN allows for a unique team-based approach in identifying undiagnosed diseases. Danny Miller gave a passionate testament of how the UDN has benefited the lives of his two children, and why continued, increased federal funding is so vital in helping other patients with undiagnosed diseases and their families nationwide.
If you are interested in hearing more about the speakers’ stories, stay tuned! A video of the briefing presentations will be made available in the near future.
September 18-19 marked the 2019 Rally for Medical Research, hosted by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). Three hundred scientists, physicians, patients, and activists met with their elected officials on Capitol Hill, calling for an increase of at least $2.5 billion in NIH funding in Fiscal Year (FY) 2020.
Emily Davenport, PhD, of Pennsylvania; and Grace Kwon, BS, of Connecticut, both members of the Training & Development Committee, participated in this event, sharing their stories with seven congressional offices to make a case for this increase in funding.
ASHG: How was your overall first experience advocating on the Hill?
Grace Kwon: Participating in the Rally for Medical Research was a wonderful experience. It put into perspective the wide-ranging impact both basic and clinical research can have across the country, at an individual and community level.
The opportunity to directly advocate for increased NIH funding to Congressional offices was a unique experience that a graduate student might think wouldn’t have a large impact. However, as the only constituent from the state of Connecticut I was able to give personal examples of how NIH funding has made an impact on my training thus far. As a student, I was also able to directly speak about the impact that a sustained increase in NIH funding would have on my future career.
Emily Davenport: I had a great time advocating for NIH funding with the Rally for Medical Research. I was able to meet with elected officials and/or staff from both of the Senators and three of the representatives from my state, along with other researchers, patients, and advocates. Every conversation was different. The perspectives of everyone in the room emphasized the broad reach NIH funding has, including not only improving health, but for science careers, job creation, and education.
ASHG: Why is it important for scientists to meet with their members of Congress?
Emily: Science takes time and science careers can be unstable. As working scientists, we are all too aware of those facts, but they aren’t always clear to our representatives. It’s incredibly useful for members of Congress to meet with researchers to understand just how long it takes to go from having an idea, to securing funding, to performing the research, and then potentially translating that research into something clinically useful.
Having stable and predictable funding is the only way that can happen. Representatives see first-hand what their support is capable of generating by hearing examples of the research discoveries happening in their home districts.
Grace: The fact that the Rally for Medical Research brought a wide-ranging group of individuals is a testament to the impact that NIH funding has in the United States. Scientists bring one unique perspective that will help Congressional leaders understand how increasing NIH funding provides both short- and long-term benefits. Important innovations like cancer immunotherapies, genetic testing, and vaccines started in the laboratory.
There is also an underlying notion that science and research is inaccessible to the general public. This is false! Science is for and impacts everyone. It is a scientist’s responsibility to make their research understandable to those outside of the field and provide a broader context for their research focus.
ASHG: What are some ways your colleagues and fellow ASHG members can get involved in advocacy?
Grace: Reach out to your state’s Congressional leaders! ASHG has many opportunities listed on their webpage, where you can also send a letter to your state’s Senators. Institutions often have an office dedicated to working on legislation focused on science-related issues, such as research funding – I would reach out to them for any opportunities they have available. If you are a trainee or student, you can form a student group or organization focused on advocating for a specific cause if your institution does not already have one.
Emily: Advocacy comes in all shapes and sizes. You can do as little as take 10 minutes to call or email your representatives about an issue that’s important to you, or go as far as applying to do a policy fellowship to be directly involved on a daily basis. One great way to start getting involved is “taking the pledge” and becoming an ASHG Advocate. You’ll get monthly email updates with up-to-date action alerts, genetics policy news, and relevant policy-related events.
Indeed, the genetic counselor profession has grown rapidly and by year’s end, there will be well over 5,000 genetic counselors practicing across the country. This number should almost double in the next ten years to continue to meet the steady demand for our services. Most health plans reimburse genetic counselors and genetic counseling. In addition, delivery models are becoming even more diversified so that genetic counselors are available remotely to patients and other providers by phone and through telehealth.
Medicare Coverage and Reimbursement: A Challenge to Access
The one area that has held back access to genetic counselors is Medicare. Medicare currently covers and reimburses genetic counseling, as well as many genetic tests. However, Congress has not enacted legislation that would recognize genetic counselors as Medicare practitioners and because of this, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) does not reimburse genetic counselors. CMS currently reimburses physicians and nurse practitioners for providing genetic counseling.
Lack of access has been shown to result in patient harm, such as incorrect interpretation of genetic test results, failure to identify individuals with genetic risk, and inaccurate risk assessments leading to inappropriate medical management. Another reason that CMS should recognize genetic counselors is because we are also a great resource in ensuring the correct tests are ordered, which may lower Medicare spending.
H.R.3235 Would Recognize Genetic Counselors as Practitioners
But there is good news! Representatives Loebsack (D-IA) and Kelly (R-PA) have introduced H.R. 3235, the “Access to Genetic Counselor Services Act,” which would have CMS recognize genetic counselors as practitioners. NSGC appreciates and thanks ASHG for supporting this important legislation.
The passage of H.R. 3235 would reverse current Medicare policies that limit physician referrals to genetic counselor services. Today unfortunately, because of arcane Medicare “incident to” rules, referrals to genetic counselors are limited under Medicare. Physicians and other providers who do not work alongside a genetic counselor, but who may want to refer to genetic counselors for the delivery of genetic services to their patients, would first need to refer their patient to a physician that actually works with a genetic counselor. This is extremely inefficient and is prohibitive. Medicare beneficiary access to genetic counselors is therefore very limited.
We are working hard with groups like ASHG to put pressure on Congress to enact this important legislation. Medicare needs to modernize in many ways, and this is a perfect example of how Congress can improve the delivery of genetic services. If you’d like to support this effort, please visit: https://www.nsgc.org/p/cm/ld/fid=612
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!