2011 Personal Genomics Preview: It’s Déjà Vu…

Last January we kicked off the new year by posing “Five Questions for Personal Genomics in 2010.” Here were the five questions we asked:

1. Will the $1,000 genome live up to the hype?

2. Will personal genomics stay DTC?

3. How will the ongoing gene patent debate affect the progress of personalized medicine?

4. When and where will the next regulatory shoe fall?

5. Who will control the data?

A year later the question that comes first to mind is, has anything really changed?

The short answer is no, not fundamentally, although that is not meant to imply that nothing of note happened in 2010. Far from it, as significant legal, regulatory, policy and technological developments continued to reshape the personal genomics landscape.

With that in mind, we welcome 2011 with a look back at the year that was, and a look ahead at what to expect from 2011 and beyond.

The $1,000 Genome. With the draft human genome sequence turning 10 this past year, numerous media outlets reflected on the contributions of genomics and personalized medicine over the past decade. A frequent focal point – and measure of success – was the march toward what Keith Robison has termed the “arbimagical goal” of the $1,000 genome. Companies and investors continue to be enamored of low-cost, high-throughput genome sequencing, as evidenced in part by the IPOs of Complete Genomics and Pacific Biosciences this past fall.

At the same time, as we’ve written previously, the goal is not inexpensive genomics, but personal genomics. What matters is not how much it costs to generate a genome sequence (i.e., raw data), but what you can do with that genome once you have it. Thus, genomics is only personal once both the data and the interpretation are individually tailored.

2011 seems likely to be the year in which we finally crack the $1,000 barrier for a data-only genome, driven in large part by continued advances in sequencing technology, including Ion Torrent’s new Personal Genome Machine. But interpreting the data is another story. Already the dominant meme of 2011 is: “$1,000 genome; $100,000 analysis?

If you’re waiting for a $1,000 genome delivered by your doctor, complete with advice about how to use the data to improve your health, Matthew Herper of Forbes advises you not to hold your breath. Likewise, analyst Amanda Murphy of the investment firm William Blair, believes that “the wide-scale incorporation of whole genome sequencing into the clinical realm is 10 or more years away.” Herper, Murphy and others think interpreted, clinical-grade genomes are going to remain elusive and expensive, particularly in the short-term and certainly for 2011. At Genetic Future, Daniel MacArthur largely agrees, but notes that for consumers willing to take more of a do-it-yourself approach, a $1,000 genome is a distinct and near-term possibility.

By 2012, motivated do-it-yourself (DIY) genomics pioneers like MacArthur will be able to locate cheap data and free or nearly-free tools to help make sense of that data for around $1,000 (not counting their own labor costs). And patients with an acute clinical need, particularly sufferers of cancer and certain rare diseases, will find that genomics plays an increasingly important role in their care, with insurers or even researchers or healthcare providers bearing the brunt of the cost.

However, the majority of us – non-scientists and generally healthy – are likely to find that full-genome sequences continue to remain just out of reach. With the combined cost of obtaining both complete genomic data and a layperson-accessible, reasonably accurate and personalized interpretation of that data remaining well north of $1,000 through 2011 and beyond, the number of consumers who choose to plunge into their full genomes will remain comparatively small. Most individuals will opt to dip their toe in the gene pool, paying several hundred dollars for a more modestly-sized chunk of personalized genomic data (e.g., the 1,000,000+ SNPs genotyped and analyzed by the likes of 23andMe) while they wait for either a clinical (and reimbursable) need to sequence or the cost of an interpreted personal genome to fall further.

As Yogi might say, the $1,000 genome may arrive this year, but it will still cost more than a grand, at least for most of us.

DTC Personal Genomics. For many, “personal genomics” is synonymous with “direct-to-consumer (DTC) genomics.” But despite the continued decline in the cost of genomic data, we begin 2011 with fewer significant providers of DTC genomic services than at the start of 2010.

The major developments have been covered extensively here at the Genomics Law Report. From the Pathway/Walgreens kerfuffle (and the FDA’s response) to the Congressional hearing and critical GAO report (and the FDA’s response), 2010 was certainly a tough year in Washington for DTC companies. (For a complete recap see: The Past, Present and Future of DTC Genetic Testing Regulation.)

While some erstwhile DTC providers (in particular Navigenics and Pathway Genomics) have, at least for the time being, shelved the consumer-facing side of their business, others continue to push forward. 23andMe remains the DTC front-runner, recently raising funds from both venture capitalists and the National Institutes of Health, but a handful of other DTC providers (including deCODE genetics) continue to offer products while a new generation of DIY genomics companies and researchers strive to put genetic data directly into the hands of increasingly large numbers of individuals.

For all of the apparent interest in DTC genomics from Congress and the FDA, the reality is that neither has yet articulated a clear plan to regulate that industry and, at the same time, both lawmakers and the regulators have bigger fish to fry in 2011. DTC personal genomics providers and their tests represent a mere fraction of the laboratory developed tests (LDTs) the FDA has vowed to regulate more aggressively and expansively than ever before (more on this below).

More importantly, the market for DTC personal genomics pales in comparison (at least in terms of market size and clinical importance, although perhaps not necessarily media coverage) to a host of other pressing issues facing Congress, the FDA and other regulatory agencies in 2011. These include, in no special order, the development, regulation and reimbursement of companion and other advanced diagnostics, follow-on biologics, how to deal with a rise in genomic data in regulatory submissions and what to do about whole-genome sequencing in particular and, of course, the fate of the healthcare reform legislation.

Remember, too, that following the recent mid-term election there will be personnel turnover in Washington as well. To cite two examples: the FDA’s No. 2 official, Joshua Sharfstein, has already resigned and one of the most vocal critics of DTC genetic testing during last summer’s House hearing, Congressman Parker Griffith – who compared providing genetic information to consumers with throwing live snakes into a crowded hearing room: useful only to incite panic – failed to win reelection.

Stepping back to view the prospect of DTC genetic testing regulation through this broader lens helps explain why, despite continuing uncertainty and ominous regulatory overtures, the DTC industry is likely to survive 2011 intact. Just as it did in 2010.

That is not to say that industry will not face increased scrutiny in 2011; or that this would be a bad thing.

There continues to be a clear need for more industry transparency, as well as heightened regulation of the advertising and marketing practices of existing genetic testing companies. The arrival of the NIH’s genetic testing registry (GTR), although not without its own critics, remains slated to arrive this spring. The GTR, along with increased enforcement of existing regulations from agencies like the FDA and the FTC, could do much to put a halt to true consumer abuses in the DTC personal genomics market.

There is also a widespread recognition that the DTC industry would benefit from greater standardization. A primary need is for greater definitional clarity. Terms like “DTC genomics” and “DIY genomics” frequently receive user-defined and inconsistent definitions, and no regulation – whether government- or self-imposed – will be practical until this terminological confusion is resolved. More substantively, there is a clear need to develop data standards, including both a standard format for returning genomic data as well as for interpreting and reporting those data. While DTC companies have frequently expressed interest in pursuing the latter, including in cooperation with federal agencies, considerable progress in all of these areas still needs to be made.

Of course, while unlikely, it remains a possibility that regulators or lawmakers will succeed in directly regulating DTC personal genomics in 2011. This could happen as part of the broader LDT regulatory movement or, more likely, take the form of narrower and more targeted regulatory requirements, such as interposing a physician or genetic counselor between the company and consumer at the ordering and/or data delivery stage. Or the FDA could always come up with some other out-of-the-box approach to DTC regulation.

Nevertheless, as we enter 2011 it remains legal throughout most of the United States to provide healthy individuals with direct access to their personal genomic data. While that is not the case worldwide, technological innovation and the proliferation of genomic data and of DIY genomic tools will drive continued growth and diversification of the DTC personal genomics landscape in the United States in 2011 and beyond.

Gene Patents. Without question, last year’s biggest story was – and continues to be – the ongoing Myriad gene patent litigation. Judge Robert Sweet’s jaw-dropping district court decision invalidated Myriad’s challenged patents across the board, for the moment, and thrust the debate further into the public and political spotlight than ever before.

While we entered 2010 anticipating a decision in Myriad, as well as in other important litigation (notably Prometheus and Bilski), we wrote that “there is little reason to believe that 2010 will be the year that the gene patent question will be finally resolved.” And we’re fully prepared to say the exact same thing in 2011 (and possibly in 2012, as well).

Those who first caught wind of the gene patent issue in March of 2010 (when Sweet’s opinion issued) may find it inconceivable that by the end of 2011 – a full 21 months later – there could be no resolution. But courts move slowly, and with the Supreme Court choosing once again to ignore biotechnology patents (the Supremes issued a heavily hyped Bilski opinion that proved to be just hype, and little more), the Federal Circuit rehearing Prometheus and saying exactly what it said in 2009 and the Myriad litigation in all likelihood multiple appeals from reaching its conclusion, a definitive answer does not appear imminent. Those waiting on the courts to resolve the patentability of genes or the increasingly important diagnostic methods at issue in Myriad, as well as Prometheus and Classen, are going to be forced to keep waiting.

Still, just as in 2010, 2011 will see its share of high-profile gene patent opinions issuing from courts. The most eagerly anticipated is the Federal Circuit’s Myriad opinion, which is expected in late spring or early summer. But the likelihood that Myriad or any other legal opinion will bring substantial and lasting clarity to the patentability of genes and related diagnostic methods in 2011 is slim.

However, not all parties are likely to be content to sit idly by and wait for the courts to decide (or not) the issue of gene patents. 2010 saw the publication of the highly publicized and equally controversial SACGHS report on gene patents and licensing. The report sparked plenty of conversation in biotechnology industry and policy circles and, though the SACGHS was disbanded later in 2010, those conversations have not quieted (as evidenced, in part, by the Justice Department’s unexpected amicus brief in Myriad). As genomic sequencing and diagnostic tools play an increasingly prominent role in clinical care, the role of patents – as either facilitators or inhibitors of personalized medicine innovation – will come under increasing scrutiny.

Persistent patent uncertainty continues to be a challenge for biotechnology companies and their investors. In large part for that reason, many are actively seeking out alternative pathways through the increasingly thorny gene patent thicket. Thus, don’t be surprised if 2011’s most noteworthy gene patent developments happen outside of the courtroom.

Legislation and Regulation. There was a lot of talk about regulating genetic testing in 2010, but the most significant regulatory action occurred late in the year with the EEOC’s publication of final regulations for Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), which finally took effect this past week. With the increasing proliferation of genetic information, expect to see GINA – now in its third full year as law – in the headlines with more frequency in 2011.

As for genetic testing regulation, yes, 2011 could be the year that the FDA implements sweeping regulatory changes for laboratory developed tests (LDTs), including most genetic tests. But after announcing its intent to do just that back in June, the second half of 2010 came and went without significant follow-up activity from the FDA. After watching the FDA attempt to regulate a subset of LDTs (in vitro diagnostic multivariate index assays, or IVDMIAs) for four years before sending IVDMIA regulation to the regulatory trash heap for good late in 2010, there is good reason to be skeptical.

There’s a reasonable likelihood that the FDA will offer at least one concrete proposal for an LDT regulatory framework in 2011. But don’t expect that proposal – whatever its particulars – to be embraced by regulated entities, and we certainly wouldn’t bet on the FDA being able to finalize such an initiative and produce final guidance (or regulations, depending on which way it chooses, or is forced, to proceed) in the same year.

Other possibilities include two oft-discussed pieces of personalized medicine legislation, the Genomics and Personalized Medicine Act (GPMA) and the yet-to-be-introduced bill from Senator Hatch on advanced personalized diagnostics. But as we sit here today, the most likely scenario is that 2011 will bring no significant new final legislation or regulation affecting genomics and personalized medicine.

Such a rapidly-moving field poses substantial challenges for overburdened lawmakers and regulators even in the best of political environments and 2011, with its newly divided Congress and promise of contentious battles over healthcare reform and other key issues, hardly qualifies as an ideal political environment. Never say never, but those who would bring legislative and regulatory change to personal genomics are likely to spend 2011 primarily laying the groundwork for 2012 and beyond.

Access and Control. Our final question last year continues as perhaps the most important of 2011: who will control the data?

All of the issues above – from how much a genome will cost to who will be able to purchase one and whether a company can patent parts of it – reflect concern with access to and control of genomic data. Laws like GINA protect the use of genetic information in certain contexts, but at present there is no federal genetic privacy law and little consensus on whether an individual owns her own genetic material and data once it leaves her body.

As courts and legislatures continue to wrestle with these issues across an increasingly broad range of factual backgrounds – from state-mandated testing of newborns for genetic disease to the use of forensic DNA to monitor an increasingly broad subset of the country’s criminal (and frequently non-criminal) population – the pressure to clarify the rights individuals have in their genomes will intensify. Will we (along with courts and legislatures) conceptualize genomic data primarily as personal, with the individual the locus of control, or as medical, routing access and interpretation through the healthcare system?

Other challenges of no less importance will continue to demand attention in 2011 and beyond. We have already discussed, above, the issue of access to personal genomic data, and, indeed, no less an authority than NIH Director Francis Collins has written that “free and open access to genome data has had a profoundly positive effect on progress.”

But even as we strive to maintain broad and individualized access to genomic data, we will simultaneously need to ensure that those without the means (financial or otherwise) or desire to pursue their own genomic data are still able to benefit from personalized genomics. Among many, many challenges, this will require continuing the uphill battle to retrofit a healthcare system populated with institutions and individuals largely unprepared to handle the increasing size and complexity of incoming genomic data.

We Will Finish Where We Started. Again. These are big challenges, and they will not be met in full in 2011. We are confident that, when 2012 rolls around, most (and perhaps all) of the same issues will present themselves yet again to the field of personal genomics.

The $1,000 genome will continue to remain more hype than reality for most individuals. DTC personal genomics will continue to spark concern from legislators and regulators, tantalizing unscrupulous businesspeople even as it is embraced by an increasingly broad segment of the population. Gene patents will remain an unsettled area of law, even as public and private efforts to resolve the issue progress. The specter of FDA regulation will continue to loom large—and advance slowly. And, most importantly, while more people than ever before will have affordable and largely unfettered access to their genomic data, that access will be uneven, with many who could benefit most from personal genomics denied that opportunity.

Still, even as personal genomics’ challenges remain largely the same today as they were in 2010, and likely will be again in 2012, progress is apparent. After all that happened in 2010, perhaps all that really changed in the last year is that personal genomics is now a year older, a year wiser and continuing to advance. And perhaps that is enough. At least for 2011.