But even though the College of American Pathologists (CAP) and nine other organizations signed a December 12 stakeholder letter to leaders of key House and Senate committees urging passage of legislation that would enable some regulation of LDTs, the VALID Act was ultimately omitted from the year-end omnibus spending bill (H.R. 2617).
That may be due to pressure from organizations representing clinical laboratories and pathologists which lobbied hard against the bill.
Responding to criticism of its stance on FDA oversight of LDTs, in a May 2022 open letter posted on the organization’s website, anatomic pathologist and CAP president Emily Volk, MD, said “we at the CAP have an honest difference of opinion with some other respected laboratory organizations. … We believe the VALID Act is the only viable piece of legislation addressing the LDT issue. … the VALID Act contains many provisions that are similar to policy the CAP has advocated for regarding the regulation of laboratory tests since 2009. Importantly, the current version includes explicit protections for pathologists and our ability to practice medicine without infringement from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).” (Photo copyright: College of American Pathologists.)
Organizations on Both Sides Brought Pressure to Bear on Legislators
The AAMC and AMP were especially influential, Bucshon told ProPublica. In addition to spending hefty sums on lobbying, AMP urged its members to contact legislators directly and provided talking points, ProPublica reported.
“The academic medical centers and big medical centers are in every state,” Bucshon said. As major employers in many locales, they have “a pretty big voice,” he added.
Discussing CAP’s reasoning behind its support of the VALID Act in a May 26 open letter and podcast, CAP president Emily Volk, MD, said the Valid Act “creates a risk-based system of oversight utilizing three tiers—low, moderate and high risk—in order to target the attention of the FDA oversight.”
While acknowledging that it had room for improvement, she lauded the bill’s three-tier risk-based system, in which tests deemed to have the greatest risks would receive the highest level of scrutiny.
She also noted that the bill exempts existing LDTs from an FDA premarket review “unless there is a safety concern for patients.” It would also exempt “low-volume tests, modified tests, manual interpretation tests, and humanitarian tests,” she wrote.
In addition, the bill would “direct the FDA not to create regulations that are duplicative of regulation under CLIA,” she noted, and “would require the FDA to conduct public hearings on LDT oversight.”
Pros and Cons of the VALID Act
One concern raised by opponents relates to how the VALID Act addressed user fees paid by clinical laboratories to fund FDA compliance activities. But Volk wrote that any specific fees “would need to be approved by Congress in a future FDA user fee authorization bill after years of public input.”
During the May 2022 podcast, Volk also cast CAP’s support as a matter of recognizing political realities.
“We understand that support for FDA oversight of laboratory-developed tests or IVCTs is present on both sides of the aisle and in both houses of Congress,” she said. “In fact, it enjoys wide support among very influential patient advocacy groups.” These groups “are very sophisticated in their understanding of the issues with laboratory-developed tests, and they do have the ear of Congress. There are many in the laboratory community that believe the VALID Act goes too far, but I can tell you that many of these patient groups don’t believe it goes far enough and are actively pushing for even more restrictive paradigms.”
Also urging passage of the bill were former FDA commissioners Scott Gottlieb, MD, and Mark B. McClellan, MD, PhD. In a Dec. 5 opinion piece for STAT, they noted that “diagnostic technologies have undergone considerable advances in recent decades, owing to innovation in fields like genomics, proteomics, and data science.” However, they wrote, laws governing FDA oversight “have not kept pace,” placing the agency in a position of regulating tests based on where they are made—in a medical laboratory or by a manufacturer—instead of their “distinctive complexity or potential risks.”
In their May 22 letter, opponents of the legislation outlined broad areas of concern. They contended that it would create “an onerous and complex system that would radically alter the way that laboratory testing is regulated to the detriment of patient care.” And even though existing tests would be largely exempted from oversight, “the utility of these tests would diminish over time as the VALID Act puts overly restrictive constraints on how they can be modified.”
CLIA Regulation of LDTs also Under Scrutiny
The provision to avoid duplication with the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) program—which currently has some regulatory oversight of LDTs and IVCTs—is “insufficient,” opponents added, “especially when other aspects of the legislation call for requirements and activities that lead to duplicative and unnecessary regulatory burden.”
Opponents to the VALID Act also argued that the definitions of high-, medium-, and low-risk test categories lacked clarity, stating that “the newly created definition of moderate risk appears to overlap with the definition of high risk.”
The opponents also took issue with the degree of discretion that the bill grants to the US Secretary of Health and Human Services. This will create “an unpredictable regulatory process and ambiguities in the significance of the policy,” they wrote, while urging the Senate committee to “narrow the discretion so that stakeholders may better evaluate and understand the implications of this legislation.”
Decades ago, clinical laboratory researchers were allowed to develop assays in tandem with clinicians that were intended to provide accurate diagnoses, earlier detection of disease, and help guide selection of therapies. Since the 1990s, however, an industry of investor-funded laboratory companies have brought proprietary LDTs to the national market. Many recognize that this falls outside the government’s original intent for encouragement of laboratory-developed tests to begin with.
Some experts question the usefulness of Pap testing going forward. But how would cutting back on Pap testing affect clinical laboratory revenue and is it safe for cancer patients?
Recently, a major medical society issued its findings that cervical cancer in the United States has been on a sustained decline for more than a decade and a half. This confirms what cytopathologists and cytotechnologists have watched as the development of new clinical laboratory tests, and the introduction of a vaccine for HPV (human papillomavirus) about 15 years ago, contributed to a reduction in the number of cervical cancer deaths annually here in the United States and in several other nations.
As incidences of cervical cancer declined, so have orders for Pap tests. Thus, clinical laboratory revenues in this area also have declined. This is a change from the 1990s and early 2000s, when Pap tests were the primary screening tool for cervical cancer. About 55 million Pap tests were performed annually during those years and many labs maintained sizeable numbers of cytotechs to perform these tests.
HPV Testing Drove Decreases in Cervical Cancer, Decline in Pap Testing
For at least the past decade, there are pathologists, cytotechnologists, and medical laboratory scientists who graduated from their training programs and began working in labs unaware that, since the 1990s, conventional Pap testing as a major source of test referrals and revenue for clinical laboratories and pathology groups has been on the decline.
What is the reason for the decline? Advances in several areas of medicine, implemented over the past 25 years, have greatly altered how we screen for cervical cancer today. And, in a stepwise fashion, the HPV test and HPV vaccine steadily reduced the role of Pap tests as a primary screening tool.
HPV, a common sexually-transmitted virus, is linked to not only cervical cancer, but also cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, and anus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, which recorded 43 million HPV infections in the US in 2018.
Cervical Cancer Down, But Other HPV Cancers Up
Though cervical cancer incidence is down, other HPV-related cancers may need additional screening standards to head off rising cancer cases, the ASCO study suggests.
To conduct their study, the ASCO researchers analyzed data for 657,317 people in the US Cancer Statistics (USCS) program from 2001 to 2017. The researchers reported their findings at the 2021 ASCO Annual Meeting held online in June. They include:
Cervical cancer incidence rate decreased each year by 1.03% annually over 16 years.
In the 20 to 24 age group, a “disproportionately higher decrease” of 4.6% per year in cervical cancer incidence rate suggested “potential effect of vaccinations.”
Without screenings, HPV-related cancers incidence increased in women over 16 years.
Oropharyngeal, anal, rectal, and vulvar cancer increased 1.3% in women per year.
In men, oropharyngeal cancer incidence represented 81% of all HPV-related cancers—five times more than cases for women over 16 years.
HPV-related cancers in men increased 2.36% per year over 16 years, and oropharyngeal cancer had the biggest increase.
“Without standardized screening, HPV-related cancers—such as oropharyngeal cancers and anal rectal cancers—are increasing. To reduce these trends and achieve success comparable to what we’re seeing with cervical cancer we must develop effective screening strategies and determine vaccine efficacy in these patient populations,” Liao said in the news release.
Should PAP Tests Be Dropped as a Primary Screen for Cervical Cancer?
HPV screening aims to detect high risk strains of HPV by looking for DNA in cervical cells and the Pap test involves collecting cells from the cervix for review in the medical laboratory for cancer and pre-cancer, the ACS added.
However, pathologists and cytotechnologists who have examined Pap smear slides for many years know that indications of cervical cancer are not always detected by HPV screening. A Pap test often picks up indications of cervical cancer that might not have been detected by the HPV test.
One reason is HPV tests only monitor about 20 of the genetic mutations known to cause cervical cancer. There are about 80 mutations that can cause cervical cancer, but most are so rare, it does not pay to include them in the HPV test panel.
In the 1990s, Pap tests were the front line for cervical cancer screening and a source of about 55 million referrals to clinical laboratories each year, recalls Robert Michel, Editor-in-Chief of Dark Daily and its sister publication The Dark Report.
“Interestingly, in the past decade, many cytotechnologists and laboratory scientists who started work in labs at the time of the new HPV screening guidelines and vaccination were unaware of the Pap test’s impact on revenue for clinical labs and pathology groups,” he said.
Medical advancements over the past 25 years have altered how providers screen women for cervical cancer and help them prevent it. And as HPV screening and HPV vaccination gained prominence, the standard Pap test became a kind of “co-pilot” to HPV testing. Unfortunately, this meant less oncology referrals to medical labs.
As the public gains awareness of the role clinical laboratories play in modern healthcare, increased engagement and understanding of the technology underlying many of these advances could create risk for labs without transparent reporting protocols to both patients and the public
In recent years, consumers have continually raised the bar in their expectation of quality when they interact with the healthcare system. Not only do patients expect providers—including clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups—to improve regularly over time, but the public has even less tolerance for medical errors of any type. Thus, a recent NPR story is one more warning to the medical laboratory profession that it should be devoting resources and effort to improving quality.
Today’s healthcare consumers and patients are more educated about and involved in the care process than ever before. While the exact science and skills may not interest the general public, the technologies underpinning much of the shift toward personalized medicine (AKA, precision medicine) are the same technologies that created the always-connected, digital lifestyles seen around the world.
With this, comes a level of scrutiny and questioning from the public that clinical laboratories or anatomic pathology groups would not have experienced even just a decade ago.
Mounting Scrutiny of Medical Laboratories and Healthcare Professionals
A recent segment on NPR’s “All Things Considered” highlighted this trend and questioned the quality control standards behind many of the procedures powering current testing. The segment also questioned the impact quality control has on the quality of biobanks used to research and create future technologies and tests.
When data and previous research powers much of the innovation taking place across the modern healthcare landscape, the accuracy of said data would seem critical. Yet, without standards in place, there’s not always safeties by which to verify sample integrity and other critical concerns.
Late last year, Dark Daily reported on a study published in PLOS ONE from Radboud University in the Netherlands questioning the accuracy of more than 30,000 published scientific studies that contained misidentified or contaminated cell lines. Guidelines, such as those created for IHR and FISH HER2 testing, provide standards intended to prevent such issues from occurring or detecting them when they do occur.
Quality versus Quantity: A Gamble Worth Taking?
Apart from challenges with healthcare reform and the regulatory landscape surrounding precision medicine, medical laboratories also must struggle with the challenges of gleaning and maintaining useful, accurate information from an ever-growing trove of data produced by analyzers and assays.
Yet, these mediocre datasets include the results of tests that carried a potentially significant impact on patient lives. In the first two weeks of February alone, both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Telegraph published stories related to erroneous testing related to cancer and the potential impact on the clinical laboratories involved and the patients tested.
Increased coverage shows that the world is watching what goes on in medical laboratories, hospitals, and data centers as healthcare continues to evolve. Clinical laboratories must move forward with this in mind or risk pushback and questioning from the public. Transparency regarding standards, and reporting information to patients surrounding testing or concerns, might effectively address this rising trend.
That quality control issues in anatomic pathology are considered newsworthy by no less than NPR is a sign of increased public attention to the quality of lab testing. The story was written to educate the public about the gap that exists in the quality control of anatomic pathology testing. All of this is consistent with the trend for providers to be transparent and report their quality metrics to the public, including patients.
This finding is reinforced by the fact that high-deductible health plans are now the second most popular plan option offered by the nation’s employers
Getting paid for expensive genetic cancer tests is likely to be tougher for clinical laboratories when the patient is covered by a high-deductible health plan. There are two trends that are contributing to this situation, each highlighted by recently-published studies.
One trend is the rapid growth of consumer-driven health plans (CDHPs). The second trend is growing evidence that patients, if they need to pay much money out of pocket, will decline to undergo genetic testing that is suggested by their physicians. (more…)
Times reporter looks at issues affecting accuracy of different breast cancer tests
Pathologists should consider a recent story about breast cancer testing in the New York Times to be a warning flag, similar to the warning flags that the Coast Guard flies along the coast to warn of an approaching hurricane. The subject of the story was “unclear tests” used to identify whether a breast cancer patient is a candidate for certain therapeutic drugs.
The New York Times story was in response to the public release of new guidelines for processing specimens used in estrogen receptor and progesterone receptor (ER/PR) testing for breast cancer. The guidelines were announced by the College of American Pathologists and American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) on April 19, 2010. One goal of the new guidelines is to improve “the accuracy of immunohistochemistry (IHC) testing for the expression status of estrogen (ER) and progesterone receptors (PgR) in breast cancer” as performed by the hundreds of anatomic pathology laboratories in the United States which perform ER and PR testing.