A New Era for Genetic Medicine

By Barby Ingle, PNN Columnist

This past September, I attended several conferences for chronic pain awareness month. Most had the same speakers and the same topics, but a promising new development was discussed at one meeting: Genetic medicine as a treatment for painful diseases.

For those who are new to the concept of gene replacement therapy, this is a potential way to treat genetic diseases that would save time, pain, life and energy for anyone with a gene related health challenge.

New genetic therapies, such as gene editing and oligonucleotides, are already paving the way towards treating rare diseases. Gene therapy focuses on adding a corrected copy of a gene or directly altering a mutated gene, while oligonucleotides are synthetic molecules used to inactivate genes involved in the disease process.

I listened to leaders from patient advocacy and industry discuss the promise of these new approaches, including Bartholomew Tortella, MD, who is a leader in Global Medical Affairs at Pfizer and Pushkal Garg, MD, who is Chief Medical Officer at Alnylam Pharmaceuticals. It was interesting to me that pharmaceutical companies are on the cutting edge of gene therapies.

One of the things I learned is that genetic editing and remapping are “one and done” treatments. A gene fix can only be done once. No doubt it would be expensive, but if it works what is the price of 30 years of standard treatments to manage a condition vs. a one-time treatment that can reverse the actual underlying genetic issue?

bigstock-Genetic-Code-3335806.jpg

I have had Prometheus and Color gene testing, and know that I have some life challenges of my own built into my genes. But learning about the potential of gene therapy gave me reason for hope.

There are already genetic therapies that are approved by the FDA for blind patients. Other genetic treatments will be coming online soon. We have been making advances with mice in research studies, and translating that into human clinical trials has now begun.

Would you want to get involved in the early stages of genetic testing? Or would you rather wait until its safety and effectiveness is proven? We won’t make progress without patients who are willing to volunteer and have their genes edited first. This is something that is a little sci-fi and scary to comprehend. It takes a special person to go first in these types of situations, yet the scientists I spoke with say the trials are being closely monitored for safety and efficacy.

One major challenge is that viruses are often used in gene replacement therapy to introduce the proper genes into the body. If a patient has previously been exposed to the virus, the new gene will be attacked by the body’s immune system and the treatment won’t work. If the therapy works, the virus is now in their body and it will not be a future option as a delivery system if the gene mutation returns or is not fully corrected.

Finding that Goldilocks zone for each patient will continue to be a challenge.

Barby Ingle.jpg

Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics. More information about Barby can be found at her website.  

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Does Genetic Testing for Opioid Addiction Really Work?

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

Prescient Medicine recently announced LifeKit Predict, a gene screening test to determine who is at risk for opioid addiction. The company states that it “can identify with 88% specificity that someone may have a risk for opioid dependency” and “provides assurance -- with 97% sensitivity -- that an individual may not have increased genetic risk for opioid dependency.”

Those are strong claims. The idea that medical conditions and behavior can be predicted by gene variants is appealing. But any such test has to answer two questions:

Is it possible in principle? And does it work in practice?

Genes and Behavior

The pathway from gene variant to behavior is very complicated. Research on the genetics of opioid addiction has found “evidence for genetic susceptibility to substance use disorders” in twin studies, but non-genetic factors are known to play a significant role as well.

Moreover, the connection between gene test results and clinically useful information is complicated. Genetic testing often finds pathogenic variants with no clinical significance. A person can be a perfect match for a rare disorder in the most advanced genetic test available but have no symptoms, so at a clinical level that person does not have the disorder. Only in a handful of cases does a specific gene variant lead to a precise fate: Huntington's disease is the standard example in textbooks.

Addiction is generally thought of in terms of the biopsychosocial model of medicine, as Maia Szalavitz explains in her book, Unbroken Brain.

“There are three critical elements to it; the behavior has a psychological purpose; the specific learning pathways involved make it become nearly automatic and compulsive; and it doesn’t stop when it is no longer adaptive,” she wrote.

bigstock-Genetic-Code-3335806.jpg

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that “genetic factors account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction; this includes the effects of environmental factors on the function and expression of a person’s genes.”

Thus, genes may play a significant role, but many other factors are also at work. A genetic test to identify an increased risk for opioid addiction is plausible in principle. But non-genetic factors make it tricky in practice.


Real World Performance

Prescient Medicine has not yet validated its product with large-scale testing in the clinical setting. There have been no clinical studies of efficacy, nor real-world reports of success or failure rates with the LifeKit Predict tool. These findings are important to know for effective use.

In research published on LifeKit Predict, Prescient acknowledges that “the use of genetic algorithms to determine predictive risk scores is still a relativey [sic] new science. Prospective, longitudinal studies are needed to better definne [sic] the breadth of the test’s importance."

A prospective trial of chronic pain patients with LifeKit Predict to see who develops opioid use disorder would be optimal. But for a variety of reasons, including ethical considerations, this test may not be practicable. Instead, Prescient could test people on long-term opioid therapy who did not develop opioid use disorder and compare the results with people who did develop opioid use disorder. Findings here would shed light on the validity of the 16 gene alleles that Prescient is using.

For now, Prescient is reporting on sensitivity and specificity. These two terms have a precise meaning in statistics, but the following medical example captures the essentials:

A molar (butterfly) rash is very sensitive for lupus but not very specific. It is rarely seen in any disorder other than lupus, so if a person has it, lupus should be suspected. But it is only seen in about half of people with lupus, so not having a butterfly rash doesn't mean you can rule out lupus.

But the sensitivity and specificity of LifeKit Predict in the ranges given by Prescient represent a significant risk for false positives and false negatives, potentially limiting the real-world value of the test.

GenomeWeb reported that Yale University professor Joel Gelertner, an expert in genetics and addiction, was skeptical that LifeKit’s “predictive power would hold up when applied to larger datasets, and argued that in the absence of better validation, physicians should not use this type of testing."

Further, LifeKit has not been compared with established tools for opioid risk assessment. The Current Opioid Misuse Measure (COMM-9) and the Opioid Risk Tool (ORT) are both simple and familiar instruments for evaluating the major risk factors for opioid use disorder.

Both COMM-9 and ORT are very inexpensive, easy to use, and give results quickly. By contrast, a gene test is expensive and requires weeks to get results. It is not clear at this point if a gene test offers any advantages over these existing instruments.

Opioid addiction risk is at present more readily assessed using tools that are already available and understood. Prescient has developed a novel and intriguing new tool, but still must prove its reliability in clinical settings before the costs and risks of such a test can be justified.

For now it is probably premature to expect this kind of genetic testing to be as useful as it would need to be to be adopted clinically.

Roger Chriss.jpg

Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Medicare Paid Millions for Bogus Lab Tests

By Fred Schulte, Kaiser Health News

Five years ago, Companion DX Reference Lab hoped to cash in on cutting-edge genetic tests paid for by Medicare.

The Houston lab marketed a test to assess how a person’s genes affect tolerance for drugs such as opiates used to treat chronic pain. It also ran DNA tests to help treat cancer and urine screens to monitor drug abuse.

But the lab went bust last year after Medicare ordered it to repay more than $16 million for genetic tests health officials said were not needed.

Companion Dx is one of at least six clinical labs mired in bankruptcy court after Medicare alleged they improperly billed the government for unnecessary urine, genetic or heart disease tests expected to cause hundreds of millions dollars in losses to taxpayers, an investigation by Kaiser Health News found.

As the nation’s bill for drug and genetic tests has climbed to an estimated $8.5 billion a year, there’s mounting suspicion among health insurers that some testing may do more to boost profit margins than help treat patients.

Medicare has slashed fees for urine tests and tightened coverage of some genetic screens, which can cost Medicare $1,000 or more per person. Private insurers, who mostly have paid these bills without question, also are taking a more penetrating look at spending on the controversial lab work.

Yet, getting these firms to repay Medicare and private insurers remains a formidable challenge. While some doctor-owned labs have dodged collection efforts for years, several testing firms deeply in debt to Medicare appear to have few assets to repay overcharges dating back years, court records show.

COURTESY PAIN EXHIBIT

COURTESY PAIN EXHIBIT

“Medicare shouldn’t be paying for dubious tests, but the time to catch that is in the very beginning when [labs] are asking for payment,” said Steve Ellis, vice-president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group. “They need to increase oversight so the dollars don’t go out the door in the first place.”

A spokesman for the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) had no comment. Neither did the Department of Justice, which represents the government’s interests in court.

Labs can run a range of genetic and drug tests using a saliva sample, blood or urine specimen. The price tag to Medicare can mount quickly, especially when doctors order highly specialized tests for large numbers of patients. Two bankrupt labs that federal officials say routinely overused tests to detect rare heart ailments in the elderly, for instance, could end up owing the government a total of more than $200 million, court records show.

Some labs have kept operating in bankruptcy while others liquidated equipment and sold off assets. Several bankruptcy trustees, whose duty is to ferret out assets, are suing suppliers, insurers and some doctors to recover funds.

Whether they can raise the pile of cash needed to repay Medicare is doubtful.

Companion Dx, according to bankruptcy records, had $117,497 cash on hand at the end of September. Medicare is seeking the return of $16.2 million paid to the company for services “not considered medically necessary,” according to a January court filing.

The Texas lab had no comment, but in court filings has blamed its collapse on disagreements with Medicare over the merits of its tests and government audits that retroactively disallowed claims. Medicare pays only for services it deems “medically necessary,” and audits typically take many years to complete.

Companion Dx opened in January 2012 expecting to “capture favorable profit margins that existed in connection with this cutting edge technology,” the company wrote in its bankruptcy filing.

However, starting in 2013, Medicare began having second thoughts about the validity of some tests and ultimately decided to cover them on just 1 percent of patients, according to the company. The lab declared bankruptcy in July 2016. The case is pending.

Iverson Genetic Diagnostics Inc. is another lab that turned to bankruptcy court as Medicare tried to reclaim $19.7 million, court records show. The case is pending.

Medicare took aim at the Seattle firm in November 2013 after reviewing “numerous” complaints of billings for genetic tests that patients “had not actually received,” federal officials wrote in a court filing.

A later federal audit concluded that Iverson had charged Medicare for tests that were “not reasonable and necessary.” In September 2015, about two months after Medicare called for the refund, the lab filed for bankruptcy.

Iverson denied overbilling Medicare and is appealing the Medicare decision, which it said in a court filing “was not based upon sufficient or proper evidence.” And Iverson denied wrongdoing in court filings.

Neither the lab, now located in Charleston, S.C., nor its lawyers would comment.

‘No Cash Left’

In another case, Pharmacogenetics Diagnostic Laboratory LLC in Louisville exited bankruptcy in late October without repaying Medicare $26.3 million for disallowed genetic tests. The lab, set up in 2004 by two University of Louisville professors, strongly disputed Medicare’s findings but said they were the “primary reason” for the bankruptcy, court records show.

Charity Neukomm, a lawyer for the lab, said another medical group agreed to purchase all its assets “free and clear of liens.” That left nothing for the government.

There’s also little chance that Natural Molecular Testing Corp., a defunct genetic testing lab, will repay the $71 million it owes Medicare, according to John Kaplan, an attorney for the bankruptcy trustee.

Kaplan said the lab near Seattle, which opened in 2010, was “printing money from billing Medicare” until the government suspended payments in April 2013. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2013 in the face of a Medicare audit of its billing and concern over its business practices, such as paying some doctors who ordered its tests as much as $10,000 a month in consulting fees, according to court records.

Five years in, the bankruptcy case is expected to settle next year, but there’s likely to be “no cash left” to repay Medicare, Kaplan said.

Critics argue that Medicare has been slow to assess the benefits of new and controversial tests and technologies — even when soaring costs signaled a warning of possible overuse.

Spending on genetic testing, for example, shot up from about $167 million in 2013 to more than $466 million a year later, according to Medicare billing data. In 2015, the program spent about $317 million on the tests and some $165 million last year. Government auditors credit tighter oversight for the sharp decline in billing.

Ellis, the budget watchdog, said the “huge jump” in these bills should have “sent out a red flag.”

Medicare officials don’t routinely verify that the sales claims labs make to doctors are rooted in scientific evidence. Some labs have hawked genetic tests as a tool for making pain management safer. The labs contend the tests can pinpoint the proper drugs and dosage for each patient based on their genetic makeup, thus reducing the threat of overdose or other injury.

However, many experts argue that the science hasn’t caught up to the sales pitch — and that some high-priced tests may do little to diagnose or treat illness.

Genetic tests “are not ready for prime time,” said Charles Argoff, professor of neurology at Albany Medical College in New York. He said their impact on medical care “hasn’t been measured.”

Court records show that the legal battles to recover assets from failed labs often plod on for years, especially when trustees believe labs paid illegal fees or other kickbacks to persuade doctors to order dubious tests.

“Some of these cases never go away,” said David Schumacher, a Boston health care lawyer who has defended doctors against these claims. Still, he said that even after years of legal wrangling Medicare often is unlikely to “be made whole and fully repaid.”

The trustee for Heart Diagnostic Laboratory, which marketed a panel of blood tests to detect heart disease and other illnesses before its June 2015 bankruptcy, has filed more than three dozen lawsuits to recover money paid to doctors and medical offices, including suspect consulting fees.

“Our analysis is that all of these payments were tainted and therefore we’re entitled to go after them,” said Richard Kanowitz. He added: “It’s an uphill battle.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Proove Biosciences Linked to Fraud Investigation

By Pat Anson, Editor

A genetic testing company in southern California has been linked to a nationwide crackdown on healthcare fraud that resulted in criminal charges being filed against hundreds of doctors, nurses and medical professionals.

Among the defendants are three individuals affiliated with Physicians Primary Care of Jeffersonville, Indiana, who are accused of unlawfully dispensing oxycodone, hydrocodone and other opioid medications to patients without a legitimate medical need.

The charges also allege that Jeffrey Campbell, MD, and nurse practitioners Mark Dyer and Dawn Antle "caused Proove Bioscience, Inc., a genetic lab company, to falsely and fraudulently bill various health care programs for genetic tests administered to Physicians Primary Care patients that were not medically necessary and never interpreted."

Proove Biosciences is not formally charged in the grand jury indictment, which was unsealed yesterday in the U.S. District Court of Kentucky in Louisville. In an emailed statement to PNN, Proove's founder and CEO said the company cooperated with authorities and terminated its contract with Dr. Campbell when it first learned of the investigation in 2014.

"Since then, Proove has cooperated with both the FBI and US Attorney’s office on this case," said Brian Meshkin. "With regards to tests being 'medically necessary', Proove received written and signed determinations of medical necessity supporting the tests ordered and billed to insurance carriers just like every other laboratory which requires such a determination on a test requisition form. Thus Proove operated appropriately and consistent with usual and customary practices."

As PNN has reportedProove’s headquarters in Irvine, California was raided by FBI agents last month, along with doctors affiliated with Proove in California, Florida and Kentucky. At the time, the FBI would only say the raids were part of a healthcare fraud investigation.

STAT News reported in February that the FBI and the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) were investigating possible criminal activity at Proove. Former and current employees interviewed by the FBI said agents were focused on illegal kickbacks to doctors who encouraged patients to take Proove’s DNA tests. Physicians reportedly could make $144,000 a year in kickbacks that were called “research fees.”

"Proove has been subject to a handful of inaccurate stories,” Proove said in a statement last month.  “We can no longer ignore these false stories based on unreliable sources, and filled with erroneous accusations... spread by a few disgruntled former employees and consultants.”

In all, 412 defendants have been charged nationwide in what the Justice Department calls its “largest ever health care fraud enforcement action.” Most of the charges, according to prosecutors, involve the illegal distribution of painkillers and $1.3 billion in various billing schemes that targeted Medicare, Medicaid and TRICARE, a health insurance program for veterans and their families.    

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said nearly 300 health care providers were being suspended or banned from participating in federal health programs.

“Too many trusted medical professionals like doctors, nurses, and pharmacists have chosen to violate their oaths and put greed ahead of their patients,” said Sessions. “Amazingly, some have made their practices into multi-million dollar criminal enterprises. They seem oblivious to the disastrous consequences of their greed. Their actions not only enrich themselves often at the expense of taxpayers but also feed addictions and cause addictions to start.”

Proove’s ‘Peer Reviewed’ Studies

Proove Biosciences promotes itself as a “leader in personalized pain medicine” and claims its genetic tests have been proven effective in clinical studies at identifying medications that can best treat pain and other health conditions. Critics say most Proove studies are not peer-reviewed and one genetic expert told STAT News the studies were “hogwash.”

Last month Proove claimed in a press release that 91% of patients in a peer-reviewed study reported pain relief after treatment changes prompted by its genetic tests. The press release said the study -- conducted by Katrina Lewis, MD, a member of Proove's medical advisory board who works at Benefis Pain Management Center in Great Falls, Montana – was “accepted for publication by the Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy.”

Not only has the study still not been published, but the journal’s publisher has been accused by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) of deceiving researchers and readers about the true nature of its publications and peer review process.

According to the FTC complaint filed last August, OMICS International has created hundreds of "open access" online medical journals that publish articles with little or no peer review.

Researchers are also charged significant fees to get their articles published by OMICS, a "pay to play" policy that some consider unethical because it diminishes the quality of academic journals and the peer review process.

According to its website, OMICS publishes a dizzying array of over 700 online medical and scientific journals, ranging from the Journal of Hepatitis to the Journal of Yoga and Physical Therapy, "the official journal of Yoga Federation of Russia and the Hong Kong Yoga Association." 

“In reality, many of Defendants’ online publications do not adopt the rigorous peer review practices that are standard in the scholarly journal publishing industry,” the FTC complaint says. “In numerous instances, individuals who have agreed to serve as peer reviewers for Defendants either never receive any manuscripts to review or discover that, when they access the online manuscript review system to review their assigned articles, the articles have already been approved for publication. In addition, in numerous instances, consumers receive no edits or, at most, only stylistic edits before Defendants publish the work.” 

"As for the Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy, Proove can only speak to its experience with this particular journal and cannot comment on the allegations by the FTC," said CEO Meshkin. "Specifically for papers submitted to this journal, our R&D team and academic collaborators engaged in documented, extensive peer-review, received suggested edits and provided responses to the suggested edits to the manuscripts submitted for review and publication. Thus, Proove would certainly consider the publications accepted from Proove-affiliated authors in that journal to be 'peer-reviewed'." 

In March, OMICS published in the Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy a study by Proove which found that one of the company’s genetic tests could identify patients at high-risk of developing opioid use disorder. Proove said in a news release the study had been peer reviewed. 

In April, a second Proove study was published in Pharmacogenomics and Personalized Medicine, an online journal published by Dove Medical Press, another so-called predatory publisher that charges high fees to researchers to get their studies into medical journals.

"This is the first of many peer-reviewed publications over the next several months demonstrating the validity of Proove Opioid Risk (test), building on the existing published evidence," Dr. Svetlana Kantorovich, Proove's Research and Development director said in a news release.

Do You Really Want to Know Your Genetic Traits?

By Barby Ingle, Columnist  

A few months ago, I got a DNA saliva test done through Ancestry.com for $99. I was a surprised at the results both my husband and I received.

We were both told stories by our parents and grandparents about our heritage that could not be true based on our DNA results. We were a little shocked that so many relatives could be so wrong about our heritage.

Then I started to wonder how much it would cost to look at my genetic health traits and found a site that builds a personal health profile based on the DNA genotypes identified in the saliva test.

The second test at Promethease.com was only $5. I thought I wanted to know the results. How good or bad could they be from what I already knew? I am almost 45, have a lot of health issues, and by this age I should know what it is going to tell me. Or so I thought.  

Most of the DNA findings in tests by Ancestry and 23andMe have no meaningful impact on your health. Promethease is great for this reason -- it is a cost-effective way to see if there is anything additional that really warrants discussion with a doctor or genetic specialist.

Since I did a saliva test, there were about 2,000 points of interest that could be run on me. If I had completed a blood test, they could have run over 12,000. I settled for 2,000 and uploaded my Ancestry test data to Promethease.

When I got the results, it was recommended that I sort them by "magnitude." Anything rated as 4 or higher might be worth looking into. I thought -- given my poor health history -- that I would have more magnitude 4 results than my husband.

It turns out I had 271 and he had 237 “bad” genome finds. So either I am not as sick as him or he is just better at sucking it up. Although some of his genomes are considered bad, they are not affecting his health. One makes him prone to balding. Well, we already knew that.  

We knew a lot of other health traits they identified. A few that I found fascinating were my learning disabilities, impaired motor skills learning, dyslexia and poor reading performance, and multiple autoimmune disorders.

If it can pick up the traits I already knew about myself, then I better pay attention to what I didn’t know:  

  • 1.4 times increased risk for heart disease; increased LDL cholesterol
  • 1.7x increased risk of melanoma; increased risk of squamous cell carcinoma
  • 2.7x increased risk for age related macular degeneration
  • 3x increased risk for Alzheimer's
  • Altered drug metabolism and bioavailability
  • Increased risk for type-2 diabetes
  • Moderately increased risk for certain cancers (breast, skin, lung, thyroid)
  • susceptibility to Crohn's disease

There were also some genetic traits relating to medication. I am a slow metabolizer of dichloroacetate (a cancer drug) and I have a Coumadin resistance. I am a slow metabolizer of protein and have multiple slow metabolism issues. I am 7 times less likely to respond to certain antidepressants and have a higher likelihood of favorable postmenopausal hormone therapy.

My results also show that I have an increased risk of exercise induced ischemia. I found that out the hard way after exercising last fall and landing in the hospital. It also showed an increase risk of arthritis. I already knew that, but it is good to know it’s because of my DNA and not necessarily just from all my years as an athlete and cheerleader.

I also have an increased risk for gluten intolerance and for autoimmune disorders such as celiac disease. 

My husband found out that he is not able to get the full benefits of caffeine. No wonder he can drink so much coffee. 

It was interesting to find out that I have stronger cravings for alcohol. If I was an alcoholic, naltrexone treatment would be 2 times more successful with my DNA. Luckily for me I don’t drink.

Another interesting finding was that I am not susceptible to the placebo effect. I think that is really the best part of what I learned.  

There are some things that I would like to unlearn about myself, but overall this was a positive experience. There is still so much more to dive into with my test results and I am sure I will focus on some other areas down the line. I am also excited to talk to my providers about the results so that we can make better plans and follow up on any items that need attention.  

If you take a genetic test and something stands out, I recommend being very specific if you reach out to a genetic specialist for further clarification. Instead of just saying you took an ancestry test and need help understanding it, I was told to ask, "It looks like I might be a carrier for Disease X, can I come in to talk about it and get this confirmed?"

My results kept me glued to the computer for a few days. Once you see them they can’t be unseen. Would you want to see your test results?

Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. She is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, motivational speaker, best-selling author and president of the International Pain Foundation (iPain).

More information about Barby can be found by clicking here.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.