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Canadian Scientists and Medical Researchers Urge Health Canada to Regulate Laboratory-developed Tests

Lack of regulations and quality management jeopardizes the quality and safety of LDTs, claim experts in clinical laboratory medicine in a commentary to Canadian policymakers

Health Canada is the latest government healthcare organization under pressure to enact legislation that regulates laboratory-developed tests (LDTs). In a public commentary, several members of the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation (IHPME) at the University of Toronto in Ontario, urged Canadian lawmakers to follow the European Union’s lead and find ways to monitor LDTs in Canada.

The IHPME members published their comments in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), a peer-reviewed journal owned by Joule Inc., a subsidiary of the Canadian Medical Association. In it, they claim “recent expansion of the molecular diagnostics industry has revealed weaknesses in Canada’s regulatory system for laboratory-developed tests, which are not subject to statutory regulations on medical devices.”

For pathologists and clinical laboratory professionals in both Canada and the United States, these recent actions show the concerns many experts have as they watch the explosive growth in the use of laboratory-developed tests in both countries. In many ways, the swift advances in molecular and genetic diagnostics is outrunning the ability of government regulators to keep pace with use of LDTs in clinical care settings.

In their commentary in CMAJ, the IHPME members also claim the review and evaluation of LDTs in Canada is inconsistent. Some LDTs they say, may endure stringent assessments and have endorsements by clinical guidelines or findings that are published in scientific journals. Other LDTs, however, may have no analysis at all.

In addition, the IHPME members point out that there is no national registry kept of LDTs. They theorize that a lack of proper regulation, controls, and quality management “has potentially jeopardized the delivery of quality, safe, timely, and appropriate care.”

The researchers calling on Health Canada to address these issues include:

  • Kelly Holloway, PhD, Research scientist at University of Toronto;
  • Fiona A. Miller, PhD, Professor of Health Policy and IHPME Chair in Health Management Strategies;
  • François Rousseau, PhD, Professor, Department of Molecular Biology, Medical Biochemistry and Pathology, Faculty of Medicine, Laval University, Quebec;
  • Alberto Gutierrez, PhD, Partner, NDA Partners LLC, former Director, Office of In Vitro Diagnostics and Radiological Health at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH);
  • Stuart Hogarth, PhD, Lecturer in Sociology of Science and Technology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.
During an exclusive presentation offered by The Dark Report (Dark Daily’s sister publication) in 2015, Alberto Gutierrez, PhD (above), who at that time was Director, Office of In Vitro Diagnostics and Radiological Health at the FDA, said, “LDTs are an area that will be difficult to regulate. There is a broad set of tests. Some of the LDTs are very good. Some of them require a lot of expertise from the pathologists and some of them don’t. Regulating LDTs in a way that makes sense and that does not disrupt what’s going on [in clinical laboratories] is going to be difficult.” (Photo copyright: FDA.)

Canadian Scientists Call on Health Canada to Take the Lead on Regulating LDTs

In the US, the FDA has been making moves to regulate LDTs since 2010, with much opposition from clinical laboratories and In Vitro Diagnostic (IVD) manufacturers. The FDA describes LDTs as internally designed clinical laboratory tests that are developed, manufactured, and used within a single laboratory. They have not undergone government regulatory review, can be simple or complex, and can be utilized to detect a variety of analytes.

Health Canada is the name of a department that falls under the purview of the Minister of Health and is part of Canada’s Health Portfolio. It is responsible for helping Canadians maintain and improve their health. Other agencies included in the Health Portfolio are:

According to the IHPME paper, however, Health Canada currently does not have a way to regulate LDTs, and no government agency in that country is responsible for the oversight of laboratory-developed tests. Only LDTs that are marketed as test kits are evaluated and reviewed by Health Canada. 

“The current laboratory regulatory system in Canada involves a mixture of public and private entities and operates with oversight from provincial governments, nongovernmental organizations, and professional societies,” the IHPME paper states, adding, “most provinces and territories rely on voluntary standards that are unevenly applied, with little auditing and systematic testing to ensure quality.”

The authors also note that the current lab regulations in Canada apply only to the operations of the medical laboratories themselves, encompassing such things as lab environments, personnel, accreditation, and quality control. They believe the loophole regarding LDTs needs to be addressed, and they urged Health Canada to “demonstrate leadership” by subjecting these tests to regulations that are currently applied to medical devices and pharmaceuticals.

Other Countries Regulate LDTs, though Not Without Controversy

In support of their call to action, IHPME researchers noted that Australia, the EU, and the US all have taken steps to regulate LDTs.

The Australian government began oversight of LDTs in 2010 by subjecting high-risk LDTs to external evaluation and then tracking them in a public registry.

An EU regulation, which was passed in 2017, will administer regulatory review of LDTs manufactured on an industrial scale, which targets commercial laboratories. The law exempts LDTs utilized within individual hospital laboratories and should be fully implemented by 2022.

Though on its radar since the 1990s, in 2010, the FDA officially announced its intent to regulate LDTs in the US. The agency released an initial draft approach for doing so starting in 2014, held a public workshop on the topic in 2015, and released a discussion paper in 2017. At this time, however, the FDA is not regulating LDTs, though the agency remains open to the possibility.

Dark Daily has reported extensively over the years on the development of LDTs and the controversy surrounding the FDA’s moves to regulate them.

According to the FDA website, problems with several high-risk LDTs have been identified, including:

  • Claims that are not adequately supported with evidence;
  • Lack of appropriate controls which may yield erroneous results; and
  • Falsification of data.

However, in “FDA Looks to Clamp Down on Laboratory-Developed Tests and Put an End to ‘Wild West of Medicine’: Might CLIA Problems at Theranos Support FDA’s Position?Dark Daily, May 4, 2016, Roger D. Klein, MD, JD, Chair of the Association for Molecular Pathology (AMP) Public Relations Committee, and Medical Director, Molecular Oncology at Cleveland Clinic, called a report released by the FDA in 2015 “mostly a hodgepodge of outlier assays.”

The FDA’s report, titled, “The Public Health Evidence for FDA Oversight of Laboratory Developed Tests,” reviewed 20 case studies of LDTs for Lyme disease, ovarian cancer, whooping cough, fibromyalgia, prostate cancer, autism, breast cancer, melanoma, Vitamin D, and other conditions. The agency concluded that in many instances “patients have been demonstrably harmed or may have been harmed by tests that did not meet FDA requirements.”

Klein noted, however, that “The 20 tests described by FDA are mostly a hodgepodge of outlier assays including tests that were never offered, tests for which comparable FDA assays perform poorly, tests for poorly defined disorders with psychologic components, and use of an FDA-approved test off-label.” He continued, “That FDA could find only these dubious examples out of the many thousands of laboratory-developed procedures (LDPs) that benefit patients each day, calls into question the agency’s rationale for expanding its regulatory scope to include LDPs.”

Perhaps this is why the FDA has yet to implement regulations for LDTs. The controversy continues.

Whether Health Canada will accept the advice of the IHPME scientists and take steps to regulate laboratory-developed tests in Canada remains to be seen. As more LDTs are created and manufactured, however, it is probable that governments will continue to evaluate the administration and oversight of laboratory-developed tests.

In both Canada and the United States, pathologists, clinical laboratory managers, and executives at in vitro diagnostic manufacturers can expect an ongoing tug-of-war between government regulators and the lab industry over the most appropriate ways to regulate LDTs.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Health Canada Needs to Act on Laboratory-developed Diagnostics

Laboratory Developed Tests

The Public Health Evidence for FDA Oversight of Laboratory Developed Tests: 20 Case Studies

Framework for Regulatory Oversight of Laboratory Developed Tests (LDTs)

FDA Discussion Paper on Laboratory Developed Tests

FDA Announces Intention to Regulate LDTs as Devices

FDA Official Makes Case in Favor of LDT Guidance

Regulation of Laboratory Developed Tests by FDA: Time for the Agency to Cease and Desist Until Congress Enacts Legislation

Johns Hopkins University Study Finds Laboratory-Developed Liquid Biopsy Tests Can Give Different Results; Call for ‘Improved Certification’ of Medical Laboratories That Develop These LDTs

FDA Looks to Clamp Down on Laboratory-Developed Tests and Put an End to ‘Wild West of Medicine’: Might CLIA Problems at Theranos Support FDA’s Position?