Federal class action lawsuit looms as genetics company searches for what went wrong; a reminder to clinical laboratories of the importance of protecting patient information
Several years ago, security experts warned that biotechnology and genomics company 23andMe, along with other similar genetics companies, would be attacked by hackers. Now those predictions appear to have come true, and it should be a cautionary tale for clinical laboratories. In an October 6 blog post, the genetic testing company confirmed that private information from thousands of its customers was exposed and may be being sold on the dark web.
According to Wired, “At least a million data points from 23andMe accounts appear to have been exposed on BreachForums.” BreachForums is an online forum where users can discuss internet hacking, cyberattacks, and database leaks, among other topics.
“Hackers posted an initial data sample on the platform BreachForums earlier this week, claiming that it contained one million data points exclusively about Ashkenazi Jews,” Wired reported, adding that “hundreds of thousands of users of Chinese descent” also appear to be impacted.
The leaked information included full names, dates of birth, sex, locations, photos, and both genetic and ancestry results, Bleeping Computer reported.
For its part, 23andMe acknowledges the data theft but claims “it does not see evidence that its systems have been breached,” according to Wired.
Anne Wojcicki (above) is the co-founder and CEO of genetics company 23andMe, which on October 24 told its customers in an email, “There was unauthorized access to one or more 23andMe accounts that were connected to you through DNA Relatives. As a result, the DNA Relatives profile information you provided in this feature was exposed to the threat actor.” Clinical laboratories must work to ensure their patient data is fully secured from similar cyber theft. (Photo copyright: TechCrunch.)
23andMe Claims Data Leak Not a Security Incident
The data leaked has been confirmed by 23andMe to be legitimate. “Threat actors used exposed credentials from other breaches [of other company’s security] to access 23andMe accounts and steal the sensitive data. Certain 23andMe customer profile information was compiled through access to individual 23andMe.com accounts,” a 23andMe spokesperson told Bleeping Computer.
However, according to the company, the leak does not appear to be a data security incident within the 23andMe systems. “The preliminary results of this investigation suggest that the login credentials used in these access attempts may have been gathered by a threat actor from data leaked during incidents involving other online platforms where users have recycled login credentials,” the spokesperson added.
What the genetics company has determined is that compromised accounts were from users choosing the DNA Relative feature on their website as a means to find and connect to individuals related to them. Additionally, “the number of accounts sold by the cybercriminal does not reflect the number of 23andMe accounts breached using exposed credentials,” Bleeping Computer noted.
Price of Private Information
Following the 23andMe data leak, the private genetic information was quickly available online … for a price.
“On October 4, the threat actor offered to sell data profiles in bulk for $1-$10 per 23andMe account, depending on how many were purchased,” Bleeping Computer reported.
Stolen medical records are becoming hotter than credit card information, the experts say. “Stolen records sell for as much as $1,000 each,” according to credit rating agency Experian, Bleeping Computer noted.
Clinical laboratory managers and pathologists should take note of the value that the dark web places on the medical records of a patient, compared to the credit card numbers of the same individual. From this perspective, hacking a medical laboratory to steal patient health data can be much more lucrative than hacking the credit card data from a retailer.
“Victims of the breach are now at increased risk of fraud and identity theft, and have suffered damages in the form of invasion of privacy, lost time and out-of-pocket expenses incurred responding to the breach, diminished value of their personal information, and lost benefit of the bargain with 23andMe,” according to court documents.
“The lawsuit brings claims of negligence, breach of implied contract, invasion of privacy/intrusion upon seclusion, unjust enrichment, and declaratory judgment,” Bloomberg Law noted. Additionally, the claim states that 23andMe “failed to provide prompt and adequate notice of the incident.”
Plaintiffs are “seeking actual damages, compensatory damages, statutory damages, punitive damages, lifetime credit-monitoring services, restitution, disgorgement, injunctive relief, attorneys’ fees and costs, and pre-and post-judgment interest,” Bloomberg Law reported.
Preventing Future Data Leaks
Years of experts warning genetics companies like 23andMe that they need more strict data security have proven to be true. “This incident really highlights the risks associated with DNA databases,” Brett Callow, a threat analyst at data security firm Emsisoft, told Wired. “The fact that accounts had reportedly opted into the ‘DNA Relatives’ feature is particularly concerning as it could potentially result in extremely sensitive information becoming public.”
“Callow notes that the situation raises broader questions about keeping sensitive genetic information safe and the risks of making it available in services that are designed like social networks to facilitate sharing. With such platforms come all of the data privacy and security issues that have plagued traditional social networks, including issues related to data centralization and scraping,” Wired noted.
Clinical laboratory databases are full of protected health information (PHI). Wise lab managers will work to ensure that their medical lab’s patient data is secure from today’s cyberthreats.
Studying gut bacteria continues to intrigue investors, but can the results produce viable diagnostic data for healthcare providers?
Even as microbiologists and clinical pathologists closely watch research into the human microbiome and anticipate study findings that could lead to new medical laboratory tests based on microbiome testing, there are entrepreneurs ready to tout the benefits of microbiome testing to consumers. That’s the impetus behind an announced deal between a microbiome testing company and a national pharmacy chain.
That deal involves health startup Viome Life Sciences, which recently closed a $86.5 million Series C funding round to support research and development of its consumer health at-home test kits, and CVS, which will sell Viome’s Gut Intelligence Test at 200 of the pharmacy company’s retail locations nationwide, according to an August press release.
“Founded seven years ago by serial entrepreneur Naveen Jain, Viome sells at-home kits that analyze the microbial composition of stool samples and provide food recommendations, as well as supplements and probiotics. Viome says it is the first company to sell gut tests at CVS, both online and in-store. The tests will sell for $179,” GeekWire reported.
Investors appear to be intrigued by these types of opportunities. To date, Viome has raised a total of $175 million.
“In a world where healthcare has often been reactive, treating symptoms and targeting diseases only after they manifest, Viome is pioneering a transformative shift by harnessing the innate power of food and nutrition,” stated Naveen Jain (above), Founder and CEO of Viome, in a press release. “Our mission is not just to prolong life but to enrich it, enabling everyone to thrive in health and vitality.” But some microbiologists and clinical laboratory scientists would consider that the current state of knowledge about the human microbiome is not well-developed enough to justify offering direct-to-consumer microbiology tests that encourage consumers to purchase nutritional products. (Photo copyright: Viome Life Sciences.)
Empowering People to Make Informed Decisions about Their Health
Established in 2016, Bellevue, Washington-based Viome produces and sells, among other tests, its Gut Intelligence at-home test kit, which analyzes the microbial composition of stool samples. This kit relies on RNA sequencing to detect bacteria and other elements present in the gut, such as yeasts and viruses.
The genetic data is then entered into an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm to provide individuals with information regarding their personal gut health. Viome partnered with Los Alamos National Laboratory to create their AI platform. The company has collected more than 600,000 test samples to date.
“We are the only company that looks at the gene expression and what these microbes are doing,” said Naveen Jain, Founder and CEO of Viome in the press release.
Viome uses technology combined with science to determine the optimal outcomes for each individual consumer based on his or her unique human and microbial gene expression. The data derived from the microbiome is also utilized to offer nutritional recommendations and supplement advice to test takers.
“At Viome, we’re empowering our customers with an individualized nutrition strategy, cutting through the noise of temporary trends and one-size-fits-all advice,” Jain added. “We’re on a journey to redefine aging itself, and we’re invigorated by the support of our investors and customers. Together, we’re building pathways to wellness that hold the potential to enhance the lives of billions of fellow humans across the globe.”
Manipulating Microbiome through Diet
Some scientists, however, are not sold on the idea of microbiome test kits and the data they offer to healthcare providers for treating illnesses.
Verdu, GeekWire reported, added that “there needs to be standardization of protocols and better understanding of microbiome function in health and disease.”
“Recommendations for such commercial kits would have to be based on evidence-based guidelines, which currently do not exist,” she told GeekWire.
Nevertheless, Jain remains positive about the value of microbiome testing. “The future of medicine will be delivered at home, not at the hospital. And the medicines of the future are going to come from a farm, not a pharmacy,” he told GeekWire.
Viome also sell precision probiotics and prebiotics, as well as supplements and oral health lozenges.
Gut microbiome testing kits, such as the one from Viome, typically require the collection of a stool sample. Healthcare consumers have in the past been reluctant to perform such testing, but as more information regarding gut health is published, that reluctance may diminish.
Clinical laboratories also have a stake in the game. Dynamic direct to consumer at-home testing has the potential to generate revenue for clinical laboratories, while helping consumers who want to monitor different aspects of their health. But this would be an adjunct to the primary mission of medical laboratories to provide testing services to local physicians and their patients.
Federal prosecutors allege that this nurse practitioner ordered more genetic tests for Medicare beneficiaries than any other provider during 2020
Cases of Medicare fraud involving clinical laboratory testing continue to be prosecuted by the federal Department of Justice. A jury in Miami recently convicted a nurse practitioner (NP) for her role in a massive Medicare fraud scheme for millions of dollars in medically unnecessary genetic testing and durable medical equipment. She faces 75 years in prison when sentenced in December.
In their indictment, federal prosecutors alleged that from August 2018 through June 2021 Elizabeth Mercedes Hernandez, NP, of Homestead, Florida, worked with more than eight telemedicine and marketing companies to sign “thousands of orders for medically unnecessary orthotic braces and genetic tests, resulting in fraudulent Medicare billings in excess of $200 million,” according to a US Department of Justice (DOJ) news release announcing the conviction.
“Hernandez personally pocketed approximately $1.6 million in the scheme, which she used to purchase expensive cars, jewelry, home renovations, and travel,” the press release noted.
Hernandez was indicted in April 2022 as part of a larger DOJ crackdown on healthcare fraud related to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Throughout the pandemic, we have seen trusted medical professionals orchestrate and carry out egregious crimes against their patients all for financial gain,” said Assistant Director Luis Quesada (above) of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, in a DOJ press release. Clinical laboratory managers would be wise to monitor these Medicare fraud cases. (Photo copyright: Federal Bureau of Investigation.)
Nurse Practitioner Received Kickbacks and Bribes
Federal prosecutors alleged that the scheme involved telemarketing companies that contacted Medicare beneficiaries and persuaded them to request genetic tests and orthotic braces. Hernandez, they said, then signed pre-filled orders, “attesting that she had examined or treated the patients,” according to the DOJ news release.
In many cases, Hernandez had not even spoken with the patients, prosecutors said. “She then billed Medicare as though she were conducting complex office visits with these patients, and routinely billed more than 24 hours of ‘office visits’ in a single day,” according to the news release.
In total, Hernandez submitted fraudulent claims of approximately $119 million for genetic tests, the indictment stated. “In 2020, Hernandez ordered more cancer genetic (CGx) tests for Medicare beneficiaries than any other provider in the nation, including oncologists and geneticists,” according to the news release.
The indictment noted that because CGx tests do not diagnose cancer, Medicare covers them only “in limited circumstances, such as when a beneficiary had cancer and the beneficiary’s treating physician deemed such testing necessary for the beneficiary’s treatment of that cancer. Medicare did not cover CGx testing for beneficiaries who did not have cancer or lacked symptoms of cancer.”
In exchange for signing the orders, Hernandez received kickbacks and bribes from companies that claimed to be in the telemedicine business, the indictment stated.
“These healthcare fraud abuses erode the integrity and trust patients have with those in the healthcare industry … the FBI, working in coordination with our law enforcement partners, will continue to investigate and pursue those who exploit the integrity of the healthcare industry for profit,” said Assistant Director Luis Quesada of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Criminal Investigative Division, in the DOJ press release.
Conspirators Took Advantage of COVID-19 Pandemic
Prosecutors alleged that as part of the scheme, she and her co-conspirators took advantage of temporary amendments to rules involving telehealth services—changes that were enacted by Medicare in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The indictment noted that prior to the pandemic, Medicare covered expenses for telehealth services only if the beneficiary “was located in a rural or health professional shortage area,” and “was in a practitioner’s office or a specified medical facility—not at a beneficiary’s home.”
But in response to the pandemic, Medicare relaxed the restrictions to allow coverage “even if the beneficiary was not located in a rural area or a health professional shortage area, and even if the telehealth services were furnished to beneficiaries in their home.”
Hernandez was convicted of:
One count of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and wire fraud.
Four counts of healthcare fraud.
Three counts of making false statements.
Medscape noted that she was acquitted of two counts of healthcare fraud. The trial lasted six days, Medscape reported.
Hernandez’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for Dec. 14.
Co-Conspirators Plead Guilty
Two other co-conspirators in the case, Leonel Palatnik and Michael Stein, had previously pleaded guilty and received sentences, the Miami Herald reported.
Palatnik was co-owner of Panda Conservation Group LLC, which operated two genetic testing laboratories in Florida. Prosecutors said that Palatnik paid kickbacks to Stein, owner of 1523 Holdings LLC, “in exchange for his work arranging for telemedicine providers to authorize genetic testing orders for Panda’s laboratories,” according to a DOJ press release. The kickbacks were disguised as payments for information technology (IT) and consulting services.
“1523 Holdings then exploited temporary amendments to telehealth restrictions enacted during the pandemic by offering telehealth providers access to Medicare beneficiaries for whom they could bill consultations,” the press release states. “In exchange, these providers agreed to refer beneficiaries to Panda’s laboratories for expensive and medically unnecessary cancer and cardiovascular genetic testing.”
Palatnik pleaded guilty to his role in the kickback scheme in August 2021 and was sentenced to 82 months in prison, a DOJ press release states.
Stein pleaded guilty in April and was sentenced to five years in prison, the Miami Herald reported. He was also ordered to pay $63.3 million in restitution.
These federal cases involving clinical laboratory genetic testing and other tests and medical equipment indicate a commitment on the DOJ’s part to continue cracking down on healthcare fraud.
Clinical laboratories and pathologists should expect to receive increase referrals from oncologists with younger patients
More people are getting serious cases of cancer at younger and younger ages. So much so that some anatomic pathologists and epidemiologists are using the term “Turbo Cancers” to describe “the recent emergence of aggressive cancers that grow very quickly,” Vigilant News reported.
Cancer continues to be the second leading cause of death in the United States and current trends of the disease appearing in younger populations are causing alarm among medical professionals and scientists.
It’s anatomic pathologists who receive the biopsies and analyze them to diagnose the cancer. Thus, they are on the front lines of seeing an increased number of biopsies for younger patients showing up with the types of cancers that normally take many years to grow large enough to be discovered by imaging and lumps leading to biopsy and diagnosis. It’s a medical mystery that may have long term effects on younger populations.
“What clinicians have been seeing is very strange things,” said Harvey Risch, MD, PhD (above), Professor Emeritus of Epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health and Yale School of Medicine, in an Epoch TV interview. “For example, 25-year-olds with colon cancer, who don’t have family histories of the disease—that’s basically impossible along the known paradigm for how colon cancer works—and other long-latency cancers that they’re seeing in very young people.” Epidemiologists and anatomic pathologists are describing these conditions as “turbo cancers.” (Photo copyright: Yale University.)
Early-Onset Cancer Rates Jump Sharply
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 3.3 million Americans died in 2022, and 607,800 of those deaths were attributed to cancer. This statistic translates to approximately 18.4% of US deaths being due to cancer last year.
The largest increase in cancer diagnoses occurred in people in the 30 to 39-year-old age group. This number represents a jump of almost 20% for the years analyzed for individuals in that demographic. The researchers also found that cancer rates decreased in individuals over the age of 50.
Breast cancer, which increased by about 8% in younger people, accounted for the most diagnoses in this age group. However, the biggest increase was 15% for gastrointestinal cancers, including colon, appendix, bile duct, and pancreatic cancer.
Because cancer can recur or progress, researchers have concerns about what happens to young cancer patients as they grow older and what effect cancer may have on their lives.
“They are at a transitional stage in life,” Chun Chao, PhD, Research Scientist, Division of Epidemiologic Research at Kaiser Permanente, told The Hill. “If you think about it, this is the age when people are trying to establish their independence. Some people are finishing up their education. People are trying to get their first job, just start to establish their career. And people are starting new families and starting to have kids. So, at this particular age, having a cancer diagnosis can be a huge disruption to these goals.”
“The increase in early-onset cancers is likely associated with the increasing incidence of obesity as well as changes in environmental exposures, such as smoke and gasoline, sleep patterns, physical activity, microbiota, and transient exposure to carcinogenic compounds,” according to the JAMA study.
“Suspected risk factors may involve increasing obesity among children and young adults; also the drastic change in our diet, like increasing consumption of sugar, sweetened beverages, and high fat,” Hyuna Sung, PhD, Cancer Surveillance Researcher at the American Cancer Society, told US News and World Report. “The increase in cancers among young adults has significant implications. It is something we need to consider as a bellwether for future trends.”
“Increased efforts are required to combat the risk factors for early-onset cancer, such as obesity, heavy alcohol consumption, and smoking,” said Daniel Huang, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the National University of Singapore, one of the authors of the study, in the US News and World Report interview.
Other studies also have shown a rise in so-called turbo cancers.
“Cancer as a disease takes a long time to manifest itself from when it starts. From the first cells that go haywire until they grow to be large enough to be diagnosed, or to be symptomatic, can take anywhere from two or three years for the blood cancers—like leukemias and lymphomas—to five years for lung cancer, to 20 years for bladder cancer, or 30 to 35 years for colon cancer, and so on,” Risch told the Epoch Times.
Not the Occurrence Oncologists Expect
“Some of these cancers are so aggressive that between the time that they’re first seen and when they come back for treatment after a few weeks, they’ve grown dramatically compared to what oncologists would have expected,” Risch continued. “This is just not the normal occurrence of how cancer works.”
Risch believes that damage to the immune system is the most likely cause of the rise in turbo cancers. He said the immune system usually recognizes, manages, and disables cancer cells so they cannot progress. However, when the immune system is impaired, cancer cells can multiply to the point where the immune system cannot cope with the number of bad cells.
It is a statistical fact that more people are being diagnosed with serious cases of cancer at younger and younger ages. If this trend continues, clinical laboratories and pathologists can expect to see more oncology case referrals and perform more cancer diagnostic tests for younger patients.
Expanded genomic dataset includes a wider racial diversity which may lead to improved diagnostics and clinical laboratory tests
Human genomic research has taken another important step forward. The National Institutes of Health’s All of Us research program has reached a milestone of 250,000 collected whole genome sequences. This accomplishment could escalate research and development of new diagnostics and therapeutic biomarkers for clinical laboratory tests and prescription drugs.
The NIH’s All of Us program “has significantly expanded its data to now include nearly a quarter million whole genome sequences for broad research use. About 45% of the data was donated by people who self-identify with a racial or ethnic group that has been historically underrepresented in medical research,” the news release noted.
“For years, the lack of diversity in genomic datasets has limited our understanding of human health,” said Andrea Ramirez, MD, Chief Data Officer, All of Us Research Program, in the news release. Clinical laboratories performing genetic testing may look forward to new biomarkers and diagnostics due to the NIH’s newly expanded gene sequencing data set. (Photo copyright: Vanderbilt University.)
Diverse Genomic Data is NIH’s Goal
NIH launched the All of Us genomic sequencing program in 2018. Its aim is to involve more than one million people from across the country and reflect national diversity in its database.
So far, the program has grown to include 413,450 individuals, with 45% of participants self-identifying “with a racial or ethnic group that has been historically under-represented in medical research,” NIH said.
“By engaging participants from diverse backgrounds and sharing a more complete picture of their lives—through genomic, lifestyle, clinical, and social environmental data—All of Us enables researchers to begin to better pinpoint the drivers of disease,” said Andrea Ramirez, MD, Chief Data Officer of the All of Us research program, in the news release.
More than 5,000 researchers are currently registered to use NIH’s All of Us genomic database. The vast resource contains the following data:
245,350 whole genome sequences, which includes “variation at more than one billion locations, about one-third of the entire human genome.”
1,000 long-read genome sequences to enable “a more complete understanding of the human genome.”
“Through a partnership with participants, researchers, and diverse communities across the country, we are seeing incredible progress towards powering scientific discoveries that can lead to a healthier future for all of us,” said Josh Denny, MD, Chief Executive Officer, All of Us Research Program, in the news release.
“[Researchers] can get access to the tools and the data they need to conduct a project with our resources in as little as two hours once their institutional data use agreement is signed,” said Fornessa Randal, Executive Director, Center for Asian Health Equity, University of Chicago, in a YouTube video about Researcher Workbench.
This is another approach to the liquid biopsy that clinical laboratories and pathologists may use to detect cancer less invasively
Screening for cancer usually involves invasive, often painful, costly biopsies to provide samples for diagnostic clinical laboratory testing. But now, scientists at the University of Technology (UTS) in Sydney, Australia, have developed a novel approach to identifying tumorous cells in the bloodstream that uses imaging to cause cells with elevated lactase to fluoresce, according to a UTS news release.
The UTS researchers created a Static Droplet Microfluidic (SDM) device that detects circulating tumor cells (CTC) that have separated from the cancer source and entered the bloodstream. The isolation of CTCs is an intrinsic principle behind liquid biopsies, and microfluidic gadgets can improve the efficiency in which problematic cells are captured.
The University of Technology’s new SDM device could lead the way for very early detection of cancers and help medical professionals monitor and treat cancers.
“Managing cancer through the assessment of tumor cells in blood samples is far less invasive than taking tissue biopsies. It allows doctors to do repeat tests and monitor a patient’s response to treatment,” explained Majid E. Warkiani, PhD, Professor, School of Biomedical Engineering, UTS, and one of the authors of the study, in a news release. Clinical laboratories and pathologists may soon have a new liquid biopsy approach to detecting cancers. (Photo copyright: University of New South Wales.)
Precision Medicine a Goal of UTS Research
The University of Technology’s new SDM device differentiates tumor cells from normal cells using a unique metabolic signature of cancer that involves the waste product lactate.
“A single tumor cell can exist among billions of blood cells in just one milliliter of blood, making it very difficult to find,” explained Majid E. Warkiani, PhD, a professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering at UTS and one of the authors of the study, in the news release.
“The new [SDM] detection technology has 38,400 chambers capable of isolating and classifying the number of metabolically active tumor cells,” he added.
“In the 1920s, Otto Warburg discovered that cancer cells consume a lot of glucose and so produce more lactate. Our device monitors single cells for increased lactate using pH sensitive fluorescent dyes that detect acidification around cells,” Warkiani noted.
After the SDM device has detected the presence of questionable cells, those cells undergo further genetic testing and molecular analysis to determine the source of the cancer. Because circulating tumor cells are a precursor of metastasis, the device’s ability to identify CTCs in very small quantities can aid in the diagnosis and classification of the cancer and the establishment of personalized treatment plans, a key goal of precision medicine.
The new technology was also designed to be operated easily by medical personnel without the need for high-end equipment and tedious, lengthy training sessions. This feature should allow for easier integration into medical research, clinical laboratory diagnostics, and enable physicians to monitor cancer patients in a functional and inexpensive manner, according to the published study.
“Managing cancer through the assessment of tumor cells in blood samples is far less invasive than taking tissue biopsies. It allows doctors to do repeat tests and monitor a patient’s response to treatment,” stated Warkiani in the press release.
The team have filed for a provisional patent for the device and plan on releasing it commercially in the future.
Other Breakthroughs in MCED Testing
Scientists around the world have been working to develop a simple blood test for diagnosing cancer and creating optimal treatment protocols for a long time. There have been some notable breakthroughs in the advancement of multi-cancer early detection (MCED) tests, which Dark Daily has covered in prior ebriefings.
Cancer is a force in Australia as well. It’s estimated that 151,000 Australians were diagnosed with cancer in 2021, and that nearly one in two Australians will receive a diagnosis of the illness by the age of 85, according to Cancer Council South Australia.
The population of Australia in 2021 was 25.69 million, compared to the US in the same year at 331.9 million.
The development of the University of Technology’s static droplet microfluidic device is another approach in the use of liquid biopsies as a means to detect cancer less invasively.
More research and clinical studies are needed before the device can be ready for clinical use by anatomic pathology groups and medical laboratories, but its creation may lead to faster diagnosis of cancers, especially in the early stages, which could lead to improved patient outcomes.