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Federal Regulators Issue Notice to DTC Test Company Orig3n That Its Purchase of Interleukin Genetics Could Involve CLIA Compliance Issues

CMS sends letter to Orig3n notifying the genetic test company that it may not have the required certifications to market its genetic tests

Orig3n’s recent ill-fated “DNA Day” promotion to offer free genetic tests during an NFL football game this past fall pushed Orig3n into the media spotlight. The Massachusetts-based biotech company—which sells 18 different DNA tests on its website—suspended the promotion due to questions from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Maryland Department of Health (MDH) regarding the legality of the testing under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments of 1988 (CLIA).

Since then, however, new details from BuzzFeed and GenomeWeb indicate that Orig3n may not have the required certifications to market their genetic tests after all. On October 30, 2017, CMS served Orig3n with an out-of-compliance notice. According to BuzzFeed, the letter came from Karen Dyer, MT (ASCP) DLM, Director, Division of Laboratory Services and the CLIA program at CMS.

In a letter to Kate Blanchard, Chief Operating Officer at Orig3n, Dyer wrote, “To apply for CLIA certification, Orig3n must contact both the Massachusetts and California state agencies immediately for guidance. Orig3n’s various tests analyze 18 genes related to health, from ‘muscle power’ to ‘sugar sensitivity’ to ‘age-related metabolism’. It offers genetic testing that provides information for the assessment of health.” The letter gave Orig3n a November 13 deadline to update CMS on issues regarding their CLIA certification.

Robin Smith, CEO, Orig3n, told GenomeWeb the notice “was the first time that any clear guidance was given regarding specific genes and requirements for CLIA/non-CLIA.” He also noted efforts Orig3n undertook over the prior year to fully certify their laboratory.

The test shown above is one of 18 genetic tests Orig3n offers direct to consumers. According to Vice, Orig3n claims their tests do not require FDA-approval “because the tests are not diagnostic [and] they don’t require it.” The Baltimore Sun reported that “Orig3n is confident it can receive the proper approvals and plans to have a fan giveaway later this season at one of our games.” (Photo copyright: Orig3n.)

A Quick Resolution for Orig3n’s CLIA Woes?

Fortunately for Orig3n, meeting compliance and obtaining certification for their existing lab is no longer a requirement to resolve the issue. In a November press release, Orig3n announced the purchase of Interleukin Genetics. Orig3n plans to absorb Interleukin’s existing assets, including a CLIA-certified genetics laboratory in Waltham, Mass., capable of analyzing more than one million samples annually.

“Once we met with Interleukin Genetics, we saw a natural alignment between the two organizations regarding our shared commitment to a future of personalized health,” Smith noted. “With our trajectory of accelerated growth, we couldn’t imagine a better fit for acquisition. We are very pleased to be welcoming Interleukin Genetics to Orig3n.”

GenomeWeb asked Blanchard how the acquisition would impact Orig3n’s commercialization of the 18 tests in question by CMS, now that Orig3n owns a CLIA-certified lab, and through it, meets the requirements of CMS’ out-of-compliance notice. Blanchard declined to comment.

New Concerns Surrounding Interleukin Assets

Yet, in solving one set of problems, some experts believe Orig3n might have inherited a new set. In July 2016, GenomeWeb reported that Interleukin Genetics would be laying off 63% of its staff. Unable to secure a clinical services agreement, the company could not extend debt payment deferrals with its senior lenders. At the time of writing, debts totaled $5.6 million.

Further complicating matters, a 2015 peer-reviewed analysis published in the Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA) questioned the clinical validity of an inflammation management program called “Ilustra” that Interleukin claimed, “identifies individuals with an increased risk for severe and progressive periodontitis, due to a life-long genetic predisposition to over-produce Interleukin-1 (IL-1), a key mediator of inflammation.”

Another GenomeWeb article reported on the turbulent road the Ilustra program followed until Orig3n eventually pulled it from the market. GenomeWeb noted critics’ concerns about the marketing of precision medicine, genetic testing, and regulatory issues facing medical laboratories as these technologies mature.

Clinical Laboratories Continue to Field Concerns Over DTC Testing

“This [genetic] test would have been laughed out of the room if it had been presented to oncologists, or to professionals in medical genetics,” declared Scott Diehl, PhD, co-author of the JAMA analysis, a genetics researcher at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine, and Professor and Principal Investigator at Rutgers Biomedical Health Sciences.

GenomeWeb notes in their latest coverage that with Orig3n’s purchase of Interleukin Genetics, Diehl is once again concerned that the genetic tests in question might find their way back to the market.

When GenomeWeb questioned Orig3n about the concerns surrounding Interleukin’s Ilustra product, a spokesperson stated, “that was simply before Orig3n’s time with the company and they do not have a part in it.” Blanchard added, “[We are] looking at the entire Interleukin portfolio and implementing the tests if and when we decide it is appropriate.”

Regardless of the decisions made by Orig3n on future genetic tests and genetic service offerings, coverage of this event highlights a myriad of concerns—from regulatory scrutiny to the pitfalls of acquiring existing diagnostic tests or laboratory assets—facing clinical laboratories, anatomic pathologists, and other medical professionals working in the ever-shifting landscape of the modern healthcare system.

—Jon Stone

Related Information:

This DNA Testing Company Is Violating Federal Lab Testing Rule

Orig3n Acquires Interleukin Genetics, a Genetics-based Personalized Health Company, to Advance the Future of Health Faster

Orig3n’s Purchase of Interleukin’s CLIA Lab May Appease CMS, But Some Question Plans for Test Assets

Biotech Company Offers Fitness and Beauty-Focused Genetic Tests

Interleukin Genetics Slashes 63 Percent of Workforce, Shuts down Program and Mulls Sale

‘DNA Day’ Planned for Ravens Game Undergoes Federal and State Scrutiny

Interleukin Shutting Down Genetic Testing Program, Lays Off Staff

Divergent Findings on Interleukin Gum Disease Risk Test Raise Questions about Clinical Use

Interleukin 1 Genetic Tests Provide No Support for Reduction of Preventive Dental Care

Controversial Gum Disease Risk Test Highlights Precision Medicine Marketing, Regulatory Issues

State and Federal Agencies Throw Yellow Flag Delaying Free Genetic Tests at NFL Games in Baltimore—Are Clinical Laboratories on Notice about Free Testing?



State and Federal Agencies Throw Yellow Flag Delaying Free Genetic Tests at NFL Games in Baltimore—Are Clinical Laboratories on Notice about Free Testing?

Media coverage of a recent Orig3n promotion-and intervention from state and federal officials-reveals the level of discomfort public and policymakers have for handling the publics’ protected health information, including genetic test data

Is it appropriate to offer free genetic tests to 70,000 fans attending a professional football game? Apparently not, say federal and state healthcare regulators who took steps to block a planned free genetic test giveaway that the Baltimore Ravens and clinical laboratory company Orig3n planned to conduct on Sunday, September 17.

Genetic testing has become a mainstay of clinical laboratories and pathology groups. And it can’t be denied that the growing popularity of self-administered genetic tests could have an impact on medical laboratories’ revenue. Additionally, there’s the issue of state and federal privacy laws in the handling of protected health information (PHI) as outlined by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to consider. Thus, the news that a developer of genetic self-test kits planned to distribute hundreds of free tests at an NFL football game in Baltimore quickly garnered the attention of federal and state officials, as well as the national media.

Instead of handing out t-shirts, Orig3n, a developer of genetic self-tests kits based in Boston, planned to offer free DNA tests at the September home opening game of the Baltimore Ravens. However, the giveaway was not to be. The promotion attracted the attention of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the Maryland Department of Health (MDH), and a range of media outlets. This led to postponing the event just days before it was scheduled to happen.

According to Forbes, the test promotion claimed to provide information on genetic markers related to vitamin D deficiency, skin aging, language ability, and muscle force.

However, news coverage in The Baltimore Sun of the cancellation of the free genetic test giveaway cited concerns from CMS officials about Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments of 1988 (CLIA) requirements.

Orig3n told Vice in 2016 that Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, and other typical genetic test requirements that apply to medical laboratories, weren’t needed because their tests are non-diagnostic. However, genetic testing often does require physician orders and lab approval in the state of Maryland.

Speaking with The Baltimore Sun, Kevin Byrne, Senior VP of Public and Community Relations for the Baltimore Ravens, stated, “[We are] working with the Maryland Department of Health. Orig3n is confident it can receive the proper approvals and plans to have a fan giveaway later this season at one of our games.”

Criticism of Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) Genetic Testing

In Forbes, journalist Rita Rubin noted, “I paid $99 for the 23andMe direct-to-consumer genetic testing service several years ago. Turns out 23andMe included at least one of the four genes covered by the test Orig3n plans to give out to Ravens fans.”

23andMe is also familiar with the regulatory hurdles of DTC genetic testing. As we reported in 2013, the company received letters from the FDA demanding they cease sale of their genetic tests. These letters were followed by a $5-million class-action law suit in California claiming the test results were “meaningless.” (See Dark Daily, “23andMe Socked with FDA Warning Letter and Class Action Lawsuit over Company’s Genetic Testing Services,” December 11, 2013.)

These concerns were echoed by Toni I. Pollin, PhD, Associate Professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “There’s nothing in this that I think is a good idea,” she told The Baltimore Sun. “The tests they’re talking about doing are not going to be useful for a particular individual.”

The graph above, which is drawn from a Kalorama report on the current and future market for US Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) genetic testing, illustrates the meteoric increase in value of the DTC tests market. (Image copyright: MedCityNews/Kalorama.)

Modern Healthcare followed up on the 23andme story in 2016. Although the class-action suit eventually failed in the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, it took nearly two years for 23andMe to bring a portion of their tests to the market.

However, the coverage surrounding both events illustrate how wary government regulators might be to allow direct-to-consumer genetic testing to become a commonplace service. And how wary the public is to trust these new technologies and services with their protected health information.

Privacy Concerns and Media Backlash Still Common

In a September press release promoting the event, Orig3n states, “Orig3n is on a mission to advance the future of health. We believe that everyone should have direct, affordable access to their genetic information and reaching people with DNA tests on such a large scale is a natural and exciting way for us to demonstrate that.”

While Orig3n claims security is in place to protect sensitive genetic information, Bethesda, Maryland, attorney Bradley Shear and Peter Pitts, President of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest (CMPI), both cited security concerns in the Baltimore Sun article.

The privacy and security concerns surrounding the collection and pooling of genomic and healthcare big data are not limited to the US. This trend continues to shape how innovative technologies grow and how systems and companies communicate data around the world.

A June ebriefing highlighted how even blinded data can be collated and compared to learn far more about a person or patient than a single dataset might suggest. (See Dark Daily, “Coverage of Alexion Investigation Highlights the Risk to Clinical Laboratories That Sell Blinded Medical Data,” June 21, 2017.)

Alexion (NASDAQ:ALXN), a pharmaceutical company specializing in orphan drugs, was shoved into the spotlight by Bloomberg Businessweek for aggressive marketing tactics in several countries around the world using blinded data to target patients and clinicians. The story also brought with it mentions of high-profile clinical laboratories and diagnostics providers—a potential PR nightmare for all involved.

Direct-to-consumer genetic tests offer opportunities for consumers to discover facets of their health and genetic backgrounds. However, the potential risks, security/privacy concerns, and the true value of test results continue to create hurdles for commercial service providers, as well as for pathologists and clinical laboratories.

Until public and regulatory scrutiny decreases, the value of the data gathered by these tests is determined, and standards are in place regarding security of customers’ protected health information, laboratories should remain vigilant and tread carefully when considering DTC testing as a viable opportunity to expand revenues.

—Jon Stone

Related Information:

‘DNA Day’ Planned for Ravens’ Game Undergoes Federal and State Scrutiny

Ravens Decide That Perhaps ‘DNA Day’ at M and T Bank Stadium Should Be Postponed

Orig3n Holds Inaugural Ravens DNA Day on September 17 at M and T Bank Stadium to Kick Off the Season

Beyond Bobbleheads: One NFL Team Wants to Offer Fans Free Genetic Testing

Biotech Company Offers Fitness and Beauty-focused Genetic Tests

Baltimore Ravens to Hand Out Free DNA Test Kits

Ravens Fans to Be Offered DNA Test Kits Sunday in Unusual NFL Promotion

Promotion Offering DNA Test Kits to Ravens Fans to Be Rescheduled

Football Team’s DNA Day Postponed

23andMe Socked with FDA Warning Letter and Class Action Lawsuit over Company’s Genetic Testing Services

23andme Escapes California Class Action for Arbitration

Coverage of Alexion Investigation Highlights the Risk to Clinical Laboratories That Sell Blinded Medical Data