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.
Demand for low cost, convenient access to doctors and drugs is driving transformation to decentralized medical care, and retail pharmacy chains see opportunity in offering primary care services
Retail pharmacies and pharmacists continue to play a growing role in healthcare as consumer demand for lower cost and convenience pushes the nation’s medical landscape away from centralized healthcare systems. Clinical laboratories have seen this in the increasing trend of consumers seeking vaccinations and home-health tests at their local drug stores.
Results of a pair of surveys dubbed “Pharmacy Next” conducted by Wolters Kluwer Health revealed that 58% of people are now willing to be treated for non-emergency healthcare conditions in non-traditional medical environments, such as retail pharmacies and clinics.
This is a finding that clinical laboratory managers and pathologists should incorporate into their labs’ strategic planning. It portends a shift in care away from the traditional primary care clinic—typically located in the campus around the community hospital—and toward retail pharmacies. Labs will want to capture the test referrals originating from the primary care clinics located in retail pharmacies.
This willingness to access medical care in non-traditional environments is especially true among people in Generation Y (Millennials) and Generation Z (Zoomers)—people born between 1981-1996 (Gen Y) and 1997-2012 (Gen Z), according to Journey Matters.
“As we saw in last year’s survey, primary care decentralization is continuing—the traditional one doctor-one patient, single point of coordination is vanishing, and this is especially evident in younger generations,” said Peter Bonis, MD, Wolters Kluwer’s Chief Medical Officer, in a press release.
The online surveys of more than 2,000 US adults was weighted by age, gender, household income, and education to be representative of the entire population of the United States.
“By preparing for this shift today, providers can work in concert across care sites to deliver the best care to patients,” said Peter Bonis, MD, Wolters Kluwer Health Chief Medical Officer, in a press release. “Likewise, newer care delivery models, like retail pharmacies and clinics, can ensure they’re ready to meet the expectations of healthcare consumers, who will increasingly be turning to them for a growing range of care needs.” Clinical laboratories may find new revenue opportunities working with the primary care clinics operating within local retail pharmacists and clinicians. (Photo copyright: Wolters Kluwer.)
Key Findings of the Wolters Kluwer Pharmacy Next Studies
Some key insights of the surveys include:
Care is rapidly decentralizing with 58% stating they are likely to visit a local pharmacy for non-emergency medical care.
Younger generations are signaling lasting change within the industry as they are more open to non-traditional styles of care.
61% of respondents envision most primary care services being provided at pharmacies, retail clinics, or pharmacy clinics within the next five years. Of the respondents, 70% of Millennials, 66% of Gen Z, 65% of Gen X, and 43% of Baby Boomers believe this transition will occur.
Consumers are worried about prescription costs and availability.
92% of respondents said physicians and pharmacists should inform patients of generic options.
59% of surveyed consumers have concerns about drug tampering and theft when it involves mail order or subscription prescription services.
One in three respondents believe convenience is more important than credentials in non-emergency situations.
The survey indicates that healthcare consumers across multiple generations are open to a shift in some medical services from doctors to pharmacists. However, there were some notable differences between generations.
Respondents of the Baby Boomer (55%) and Gen X (57%) generations stated they would trust a physician assistant with medication prescriptions, while only 42% of Gen Z and 47% of Millennial respondents felt the same way.
Additionally, Boomers (57%) and Gen X (67%) said they would feel comfortable with a nurse practitioner issuing their prescriptions, while only 44% of Gen Z and 53% of Millennials said they would.
Increased Comfort with Genetic Testing at Pharmacies
Overall, 68% of individuals polled believe their individual genomic data could guide prescription decisions, with Millennials (77%) and Gen Z (74%) being the primary believers. Additionally, 88% of respondents stated they see an incentive for health insurers to cover genomic testing, and 72% said they would be open to genetic testing for personalized medical care.
But pharmacists and clinicians should be aware that advancing pharmacogenomics will require addressing privacy concerns. According to the Wolters Kluwer study, 57% of Gen Z and 53% of Millennials have apprehension surrounding genetic testing due to privacy risks, with 35% of Gen X and Boomers holding that same opinion.
Healthcare Staff Shortages, Drug Cost a Concern
Survey respondents are also concerned about pharmacy staff shortages and expenditures when seeking care at a pharmacy. Half of the participants are worried they will receive the wrong medication, half worry about getting the incorrect dosage, and almost half (47%) fear receiving the wrong directions due to overburdened pharmacy employees.
More people in Gen Z (59%) and Millennials (60%) had these concerns compared to Gen X (44%) and Boomers (38%).
Sadly, a distressing 44% of those surveyed admitted to not filling a prescription due to the costs. That number jumps to a staggering 56% among individuals with no health insurance, compared to 42% for insured patients.
“From hospitals to doctors’ offices, from pharmacies to pharma and beyond, healthcare must move to more affordable and accessible primary care models, adopt innovations that help deliver more personalized care, and address persistent safety and cost concerns that consumers have about their medications,” said Bonis in the press release.
Can Pharmacies Deliver Primary Care as Well as Doctor’s Offices?
Pharmacies may be logical setting for at least some non-emergency health services. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 90% of the US population live within five miles of a pharmacy and about 72% of visits to physician’s offices involve the prescribing and monitoring of medication therapies.
“We’re not talking about complicated services. We’re talking low-acuity, very basic care,” said Anita Patel, PharmD, Vice President of Pharmacy Services Development for Walgreens, at the HIMSS conference.
Pharmacies across the country continue to add more healthcare services to their available public offerings. This trend will likely persist into the future as healthcare becomes more expensive, wait times for physician appointments increases, and medical staff shortages rise. Thus, there may be opportunities for clinical laboratories to support pharmacists and doctors working in retail settings.
Findings could lead to deeper understanding of why we age, and to medical laboratory tests and treatments to slow or even reverse aging
Can humans control aging by keeping their genes long and balanced? Researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, believe it may be possible. They have unveiled a “previously unknown mechanism” behind aging that could lead to medical interventions to slow or even reverse aging, according to a Northwestern news release.
Should additional studies validate these early findings, this line of testing may become a new service clinical laboratories could offer to referring physicians and patients. It would expand the test menu with assays that deliver value in diagnosing the aging state of a patient, and which identify the parts of the transcriptome that are undergoing the most alterations that reduce lifespan.
It may also provide insights into how treatments and therapies could be implemented by physicians to address aging.
“I find it very elegant that a single, relatively concise principle seems to account for nearly all of the changes in activity of genes that happen in animals as they change,” Thomas Stoeger, PhD, postdoctoral scholar in the Amaral Lab who led the study, told GEN. Clinical laboratories involved in omics research may soon have new anti-aging diagnostic tests to perform. (Photo copyright: Amaral Lab.)
Possible ‘New Instrument’ for Biological Testing
Researchers found clues to aging in the length of genes. A gene transcript length reveals “molecular-level changes” during aging: longer genes relate to longer lifespans and shorter genes suggest shorter lives, GEN summarized.
The phenomenon the researchers uncovered—which they dubbed transcriptome imbalance—was “near universal” in the tissues they analyzed (blood, muscle, bone, and organs) from both humans and animals, Northwestern said.
The Northwestern study suggests “systems-level” changes are responsible for aging—a different view than traditional biology’s approach to analyzing the effects of single genes.
“We have been primarily focusing on a small number of genes, thinking that a few genes would explain disease,” said Luis Amaral, PhD, Senior Author of the Study and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Northwestern, in the news release.
“So, maybe we were not focused on the right thing before. Now that we have this new understanding, it’s like having a new instrument. It’s like Galileo with a telescope, looking at space. Looking at gene activity through this new lens will enable us to see biological phenomena differently,” Amaral added.
In their Nature Aging paper, Amaral and his colleagues wrote, “We hypothesize that aging is associated with a phenomenon that affects the transcriptome in a subtle but global manner that goes unnoticed when focusing on the changes in expression of individual genes.
“We show that transcript length alone explains most transcriptional changes observed with aging in mice and humans,” they continued.
In tissues studied, older animals’ long transcripts were not as “abundant” as short transcripts, creating “imbalance.”
“Imbalance” likely prohibited the researchers’ discovery of a “specific set of genes” changing.
As animals aged, shorter genes “appeared to become more active” than longer genes.
In humans, the top 5% of genes with the shortest transcripts “included many linked to shorter life spans such as those involved in maintaining the length of telomeres.”
Conversely, the researchers’ review of the leading 5% of genes in humans with the longest transcripts found an association with long lives.
Antiaging drugs—rapamycin (aka, sirolimus) and resveratrol—were linked to an increase in long-gene transcripts.
“The changes in the activity of genes are very, very small, and these small changes involve thousands of genes. We found this change was consistent across different tissues and in different animals. We found it almost everywhere,” Thomas Stoeger, PhD, postdoctoral scholar in the Amaral Lab who led the study, told GEN.
In their paper, the Northwestern scientists noted implications for creation of healthcare interventions.
“We believe that understanding the direction of causality between other age-dependent cellular and transcriptomic changes and length-associated transcriptome imbalance could open novel research directions for antiaging interventions,” they wrote.
While more research is needed to validate its findings, the Northwestern study is compelling as it addresses a new area of transcriptome knowledge. This is another example of researchers cracking open human and animal genomes and gaining new insights into the processes supporting life.
For clinical laboratories and pathologists, diagnostic testing to reverse aging and guide the effectiveness of therapies may one day be possible—kind of like science’s take on the mythical Fountain of Youth.
Executives and pathologists from many of the nation’s most prominent clinical laboratories are on their way to the Crescent City today to share best practices, hear case studies from innovative labs, and network
All this is happening amidst important changes to healthcare and medicine in the United States. “Today, the US healthcare system is transforming itself at a steady pace,” explained Robert L. Michel, Editor-in-Chief of The Dark Report and Founder of the Executive War College. “Big multi-hospital health systems are merging with each other, and payers are slashing reimbursement for many medical lab tests, even as healthcare consumers want direct access to clinical laboratory tests and the full record of their lab test history.
“Each of these developments has major implications in how clinical laboratories serve their parent organizations, offer services directly to consumers, and negotiate with payers for fair reimbursement as in-network providers,” Michel added. “Attending the Executive War College on Diagnostics, Clinical Laboratory, and Pathology Management equips lab leaders with the tools they’ll need to make smart decisions during these challenging times.”
Now in its 28th year, the Executive War College on Diagnostics, Clinical Laboratory, and Pathology Management convenes April 25-26 in New Orleans. Executive War College extends to a third day with three full-day workshops: LEAN fundamentals for lab leaders, a genetic testing program track, and a digital pathology track. Learn more at www.ExecutiveWarCollege.com. (Photo copyright: The Dark Intelligence Group.)
Challenges and Opportunities for Clinical Laboratories
With major changes unfolding in the delivery and reimbursement of clinical services, clinical laboratory and pathology practice leaders need effective ways to respond to the evolving needs of physicians, patients, and payers. As The Dark Report has often covered, three overlapping areas are a source of tension and financial pressure for labs:
Day-to-day pressures to manage costs in the clinical laboratory or pathology practice.
The growing demand for genetic testing, accompanied by reimbursement challenges.
Evolving consumer expectations in how they receive medical care and interact with providers.
Addressing all three issues and much more, the 2023 Executive War College on Diagnostics, Clinical Laboratory, and Pathology Management features more than 80 sessions with up to 125 lab managers, consultants, vendors, and in vitro diagnostic (IVD) experts as speakers and panelists.
Old-School Lab Rules Have Evolved into New-School Lab Rules
Tuesday’s keynote general sessions (to be reported exclusively in Wednesday’s Dark Daily ebriefing) will include four points of interest for clinical laboratory and pathology leaders who are managing change and pursuing new opportunities:
Positioning the lab to prosper by serving healthcare’s new consumers, new care models, new payment models, and more, with Michel at the podium.
How old-school lab rules have evolved into new-school lab rules and ways to transition the lab through today’s disrupters in healthcare and the clinical laboratory marketplace, with Stan Schofield, Managing Principal of the Compass Group.
Wednesday’s keynotes conclude with a panel discussion on delivering value to physicians, patients, and payers with lab testing services.
Clinical Labs, Payers, and Health Plans Swamped by Genetic Test Claims
Attendees of the 2023 Executive War College on Diagnostics, Clinical Laboratory, and Pathology Management may notice a greater emphasis on whole genome sequencing and genetic testing this year.
As regular coverage and analysis in The Dark Report has pointed out, clinical laboratories, payers, and health plans face challenges with the explosion of genetic testing. Several Executive War College Master Classes will explore critical management issues of genetic and genomic testing, including laboratory benefit management programs, coverage decisions, payer relations, and best coding practices, as well as genetic test stewardship.
This year’s Executive War College also devotes a one-day intensive session on how community hospitals and local labs can set up and offer genetic tests and next-generation sequencing services. This third-day track features more than a dozen experts including:
During these sessions, attendees will be introduced to “dry labs” and “virtual CLIA labs.” These new terms differentiate the two organizations that process genetic data generated by “wet labs,” annotate it, and provide analysis and interpretation for referring physicians.
State of the Industry: Clinical Lab, Private Practice Pathology, Genetic Testing, IVD, and More
For lab consultants, executives, and directors interested in state-of-the-industry Q/A and discussions concerning commercial laboratories, private-practice pathology, and in vitro diagnostics companies, a range of breakout sessions, panels, and roundtables will cover:
Action steps to protect pathologists’ income and boost practice revenue.
Important developments in laboratory legal, regulatory, and compliance requirements.
New developments in clinical laboratory certification and accreditation, including the most common deficiencies and how to reach “assessment ready” status.
An update on the IVD industry and what’s working in today’s post-pandemic market for lab vendors and their customers.
Federal government updates on issues of concern to clinical laboratories, including PAMA, the VALID Act, and more.
Long-time attendees will notice the inclusion of “Diagnostics” into the Executive War College moniker. It’s an important addition, Michel explained for Dark Daily.
“In the recent past, ‘clinical laboratory’ and ‘anatomic pathology’ were terms that sufficiently described the profession of laboratory medicine,” he noted. “However, a subtle but significant change has occurred in recent years. The term ‘diagnostics’ has become a common description for medical testing, along with other diagnostic areas such as radiology and imaging.”
Key managers of medical laboratories, pathology groups, and in vitro diagnostics have much to gain from attending the Executive War College on Diagnostics, Clinical Laboratory, and Pathology Management, now in its 28th year. Look for continued coverage through social media channels, at Dark Daily, and in The Dark Report.
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.