Citizens claiming racial diversity increased by 276% in the 2020 census, leading experts to wonder if racial diversity is increasing or if people are simply electing to identify as such and how this trend will affect healthcare
The last US census showed an interesting change compared to previous census surveys. More Americans identified themselves as racially diverse than in previous censuses. Scientists in multiple specialty areas—including demographics, sociology, genetics, and more—are asking why.
According to federal Census Bureau data, in the most recent census, people who identify as more than one race rose by 276%! Scientists are only just beginning to hypothesize the reasons for this increase, but three potential factors, NPR reported, have emerged:
More children are being born to parents who identify with racial groups that are different from one another.
People are reconsidering what they want the government to know about their identities, according to Duke University Press.
The increased incidence of DNA testing for cultural heritage may be an additional factor in the different ways people identified themselves during the census, driving its popularity, NPR noted. More people are purchasing at-home DNA tests to learn where their ancestors lived and came from, and their family’s genealogy.
“Exactly how big of an effect these tests had on census results is difficult to pin down,” NPR reported. “But many researchers agree that as the cost of at-home kits fell in recent years, they have helped shape an increasing share of the country’s ever-changing ideas about the social construct that is race.”
How the Census Alters Government Policy
Pew Research noted that, although only about 16% of Americans have taken an ancestry DNA test, the marketing efforts of “companies such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com, which operates the AncestryDNA service, should not be underestimated,” NPR reported. They have a wide reach, and those efforts could be impacting how people think about race and ethnic identity.
For most of human history, social experience and contemporary family history have been the drivers of how people identified themselves. However, low-cost DTC genetic testing may be changing that.
One concern that sociologists and demographers have about this trend is that the US census is an important tool in policy, civil rights protections, and even how researchers measure things like healthcare access disparities.
“You’re going to have a lot more people who are not part of marginalized groups in terms of their social experiences claiming to be part of marginalized groups. When it comes to understanding discrimination or inequality, we’re going have very inaccurate estimates,” says Wendy Roth, PhD, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Pennsylvania, told NPR.
They developed the “genetic options” theory, “to account for how genetic ancestry tests influence consumers’ ethnic and racial identities.” They wrote, “The rapid growth of genetic ancestry testing has brought concerns that these tests will transform consumers’ racial and ethnic identities, producing “geneticized” identities determined by genetic knowledge.”
However, a more healthcare-related motivation for taking a DTC DNA test is to learn about one’s potential risks for familial chronic health conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, etc.
“Whether that occurs through your primary care doctor, your large integrated health network, or your payor, I think there will be profound changes in society’s tolerance for using genetics for prevention,” he told GenomeWeb.
Regardless, as Dark Daily reported in 2020, sales of genetic tests from Ancestry and 23andMe show the market is cooling. Thus, with less than 20% of the population having taken DNA tests, and with sales slowing, genetics testing may not affect responses on the next US census, which is scheduled for April 1, 2030.
In the meantime, clinical laboratory managers should recognize how and why more consumers are interested in ordering their own medical laboratory tests and incorporate this trend into their lab’s strategic planning.
Studies into use of population-level genomic cancer screening show promising results while indicating that such testing to find evidence of increased cancer risk among non-symptomatic people may be beneficial
In another example of a government health system initiating a program designed to proactively identify people at risk for a serious disease to allow early clinical laboratory diagnosis and monitoring for the disease, cancer researchers at Monash University in Australia have receive a $2.97 million grant from the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) to study ways to “identifying people who are living with a heightened cancer risk who would ordinarily be informed only after a potentially incurable cancer is diagnosed.”
According to a Monash news release, the researchers, led by Associate Professor Paul Lacaze, PhD, Head of the Public Health Genomics Program at Monash University, plan to use the award to develop a “new low-cost DNA screening test which will be offered to 10,000 young Australians. The new approach, once scaled-up, has the potential to drastically improve access to preventive genetic testing in Australia, and could help make Australia the world’s first nation to offer preventive DNA screening through a public healthcare system.”
Called DNACancerScreen, the clinical genetic test will be offered to anyone between the ages of 18 and 40, rather than to a select group of people who have a family history of cancer or who present with symptoms. The Monash scientists hope to advance knowledge about the relationship of specific genes and how they cause or contribute to cancer. Such information, they believe, could lead to the development of new precision medicine diagnostic tests and anti-cancer drug therapies.
Gap in Current Cancer Screening Practices
The DNACancerScreen test will look for genes related to two specific cancer categories:
Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Syndrome is associated with an increased risk of developing breast, ovarian, prostate, and pancreatic cancers, as well as melanoma. Lynch Syndrome is associated with colorectal, endometrial, ovarian, and other cancers.
Currently, screening practices may miss as many as 50-90% of individuals who carry genetic mutations associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, and as many as 95% of those at risk due to Lynch Syndrome, according to the Monash news release.
But currently, only those with a family history of these cancers, or those who present with symptoms, are screened. By targeting younger individuals for screening, Lacaze and his team hope to give those at risk a better chance at early detection.
“This will empower young Australians to take proactive steps to mitigate risk, for earlier detection, surveillance from a younger age, and prevention of cancer altogether,” Lacaze said in the news release.
Similar Genetic Studies Show Encouraging Results
Although the DNACancerScreen study in Australia is important, it is not the first to consider the impact of population-level screening for Tier 1 genetic mutations. The Healthy Nevada Project (HVN), a project that combined genetic, clinical, environmental, and social data, tested participants for those Tier 1 conditions. The project was launched in 2016 and currently has more than 50,000 participants, a Desert Research Institute (DRI) press release noted.
In 2018, HVN began informing participants who had increased risk for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, Lynch Syndrome, and a third condition called Familial Hypercholesterolemia. There were 27,000 participants, and 90% of those who had genetic mutations associated with the three Tier 1 conditions had not been previously identified.
“Our first goal was to deliver actionable health data back to the participants of the study and understand whether or not broad population screening of CDC Tier 1 genomic conditions was a practical tool to identify at-risk individuals,” said Joseph Grzymski, PhD, lead author of the HVN study in the DRI press release.
Grzymski is Principal Investigator of the Healthy Nevada Project, Director of the Renown Institute for Health Innovation, Chief Scientific Officer for Renown Health, and a Research Professor in Computational Biology and Genetics at the Desert Research Institute.
“Now, two years into doing that it is clear that the clinical guidelines for detecting risk in individuals are too narrow and miss too many at risk individuals,” he added.
A total of 358, or 1.33% of the 26,906 participants in the Healthy Nevada Project were carriers for the Tier 1 conditions, but only 25% of them met the current guidelines for screening, and only 22 had any previous suspicion in their medical records of their genetic conditions.
Another project, the MyCode Community Health Initiative conducted at Geisinger Health System, found that 87% of participants with a Tier 1 gene variant did not have a prior diagnosis of a related condition. When the participants were notified of their increased risk, 70% chose to have a related, suggested procedure.
“This evidence suggests that genomic screening programs are an effective way to identify individuals who could benefit from early intervention and risk management—but [who] have not yet been diagnosed—and encourage these individuals to take measures to reduce their risk,” a Geisinger Health press release noted.
Realizing the Promise of Precision Medicine
Studies like these are an important step in realizing the potential of precision medicine in practical terms. The Tier 1 genetic conditions are just a few of the more than 22,000 recognized human genes of which scientists have a clear understanding. Focusing only on those few genetic conditions enables clinicians to better help patients decide how to manage their risk.
“Genomic screening can identify at-risk individuals more comprehensively than previous methods and start people on the path to managing that risk. The next step is figuring out the impact genomic screening has on improving population health,” said Adam Buchanan, MPH, MS, Director of Geisinger’s Genomic Medicine Institute.
These are positive developments for clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology group practices. The three examples cited above show that a proactive screening program using genetic tests can identify individuals at higher risk for certain cancers. Funding such programs will be the challenge.
At the current cost of genetic testing, screening 100 people to identify a few individuals at high risk for cancer would probably not be considered the highest and best use of the limited funds available to the healthcare system.
Genomics experts say this is a sign that clinical laboratory genetics testing is maturing into a powerful tool for population health
Faced with lagging sales and employee layoffs, genomics companies in the genealogy DNA testing market are shifting their focus to the healthcare aspects of the consumer genomics data they’ve compiled and aggregated.
Recent analysis of the sales of genetic tests from Ancestry and 23andMe show the market is definitely cooling, and the analysts speculate that—independent of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on consumer behavior—the two clinical laboratory genetic testing companies may already have done testing for the majority of consumers who want to buy these tests.
“I think the consumer market is going to become more integrated into the healthcare experience,” Joe Grzymski, PhD, told GenomeWeb. “Whether that occurs through your primary care doctor, your large integrated health network, or your payor, I think there will be profound changes in society’s tolerance for using genetics for prevention.”
In February, Ancestry, the largest company in the home DNA testing space, announced it was laying off 6% of its workforce or approximately 100 people, across different departments due to a decline in sales, CNBC reported. Several weeks earlier, 23andMe, the second largest company in this market, also announced it was laying off about 100 people or 14% of its workforce due to declining sales.
“I wasn’t surprised by the news,” said Linda Avey, a 23andMe co-founder who is now co-founder and Chief Executive Officer at Precisely Inc., a genomics company headquartered in San Francisco. She was commenting to GenomeWeb on the recent restructuring at her former company. “The level of expensive advertising has been insane here in the US. Those [customer acquisition costs] are not a sustainable model.”
CNBC surmised that the lull in at-home genetic testing is due mainly to:
A drought of early adopters. Individuals who were interested in the testing for genealogical and health reasons, and who believed in the value of the tests, have already purchased the product.
Privacy concerns. Some potential customers may have reservations about having their DNA information collected and stored in a database due to concerns about how that data is safeguarded and its potential uses by outside companies, law enforcement, and governments.
COVID-19 May or May Not Be a Factor in Declining DNA Testing Sales
The COVID-19 pandemic may be playing a role in the decline in sales of at-home DNA testing kits. However, there are indications that the market was cooling before the virus occurred.
An article in MIT Technology Review reported that 26 million people had purchased at-home DNA testing kits by the beginning of 2019. The article also estimated that if the market continued at that pace, 100 million people were expected to purchase the tests by the end of 2020.
However, data released by research firm Second Measure, a company that analyzes credit and debit card purchases, may show a different story, reported Vox. The data showed a general decline in test kit sales in 2019. Ancestry’s sales were down 38% and 23andMe’s sales were down 54% in November 2019 compared to November 2018. The downward trend continued in December with Ancestry sales declining 15% and 23andMe sales declining 48% when compared to December 2018.
Second Measure, however, compiled data from the two companies’ websites only. They did not include testing kits that may have been purchased through other sources such as Amazon, or at brick and mortar locations.
Nevertheless, the measures being taken by genomics companies to shore up their market indicates the Second Measure data is accurate or very close.
Rise of Population-level Genomics
This decline in genealogical sales seems to be behind DNA-testing companies shifting focus to the healthcare aspects of consumer genomics. Companies like 23andMe and Ancestry are looking into developing health reports based on their customers’ data that can ascertain an individual’s risk for certain health conditions, or how they may react to prescription medications.
For some genomics companies like 23andMe, the at-home DNA testing market was never specifically about selling testing kits. Rather, these companies envisioned a market where consumers would pay to have their DNA analyzed to obtain data on their ancestry and health, and in turn the testing companies would sell the aggregated consumer data to other organizations, such as pharmaceutical companies.
“Remember that 23andMe was never in the consumer genomics business, they were in the data aggregation business,” Spencer Wells, PhD, founder and Executive Director of the Insitome Institute, a US-based 501(c)3 nonprofit think tank focused on key areas in the field of personal genomics, told GenomeWeb. “They created a database that should in principle allow them to do what they promised, which is to improve people’s health through genomic testing.”
Even with clinical laboratory testing currently focused on COVID-19 testing, there remains an opportunity to sequence large numbers of people through at-home DNA testing and then incorporate those findings into the practice of medicine. The hope is that sales will again accelerate once consumers feel there is a compelling need for the tests.
Pathologists and clinical laboratory managers will want to watch to see if the companies that grew big by selling ancestry and genealogy tests to consumers will start to send sales reps into physicians’ offices to offer genetic tests that would be useful in diagnosing and treating patients.
Many other healthcare systems also are partnering with private genetic testing companies to pursue research that drive precision medicine goals
It is certainly unusual when a major health network announces that it will give away free genetic tests to 10,000 of its patients as a way to lay the foundation to expand clinical services involving precision medicine. However, pathologists and clinical laboratory managers should consider this free genetic testing program to be the latest marketplace sign that acceptance of genetic medicine continues to move ahead.
Notably, it is community hospitals that are launching this
new program linked to clinical laboratory research that uses genetic tests for
specific, treatable conditions. The purpose of such genetic research is to
identify patients who would benefit from test results that identify the best
therapies for their specific conditions, a core goal of precision medicine.
Clinical laboratory leaders will be interested in this
initiative, as well other partnerships between healthcare systems and private
genetic testing companies aimed at identifying and enrolling patients in
research studies for disease treatment protocols and therapies.
The Future of Precision Medicine
Modern Healthcare reported that data from the WholeMe DNA study, which was funded through donations to the AdventHealth Foundation, also will be used by the healthcare network for research beyond FH, as AdventHealth develops its genomics services. The project’s cost is estimated to reach $2 million.
“Genomics is the future of medicine, and the field is rapidly evolving. As we began our internal discussions about genomics and how to best incorporate it at AdventHealth, we knew research would play a strong role,” Wes Walker MD, Director, Genomics and Personalized Health, and Associate CMIO at AdventHealth, told Becker’s Hospital Review.
“We decided to focus on familial hypercholesterolemia
screening initially because it’s a condition that is associated with
life-threatening cardiovascular events,” he continued. “FH is treatable once
identified and finding those who have the condition can lead to identifying
other family members who are subsequently identified who never knew they had
The AdventHealth Orlando website states that participants in the WholeMe study receive information stored in a confidential data repository that meets HIPAA security standards. The data covers ancestry and 22 other genetic traits, such as:
Asparagus Odor Detection
Cilantro Taste Aversion
Endurance vs Power
Exercise Impact on Weight
Hair Curl and Texture
Hand Grip Strength
Tan vs. Sunburn
Those who test positive for a disease-causing FH variant will be referred by AdventHealth for medical laboratory blood testing, genetic counseling, and a cardiologist visit, reported the Ormond Beach Observer.
One in 250 people have FH, and 90% of them are undiagnosed,
according to the FH Foundation,
which also noted that children have a 50% chance of inheriting FH from parents
with the condition.
AdventHealth plans to expand the free testing beyond central
Florida to its 46 other hospitals located in nine states, Modern Healthcare
Other Genetics Data Company/Healthcare Provider Partnerships
Business Insider noted that Helix has focused on clinical partnerships for about a year and seems to be filling a niche in the genetic testing market.
“Helix is able to sidestep the costs of direct-to-consumer
marketing and clinical test development, while still expanding its customer
base through predefined hospital networks. And the company is in a prime
position to capitalize on providers’ interest in population health management,”
Business Insider reported.
Color also offers genetic testing and whole genome sequencing services to NorthShore’s DNA10K program, which plans to test 10,000 patients for risk for hereditary cancers and heart diseases, according to news release.
And, Jefferson Health offered Color’s genetic testing to the healthcare system’s 33,000 employees, 10,000 of which signed up to learn their health risks as well as ancestry, a Color blog post states.
“Understanding the genome warning signals of every patient will be an essential part of wellness planning and health management,” said Geisinger Chief Executive Officer David Feinberg, MD, when he announced the new initiative at the HLTH (Health) Conference in Las Vegas. “Geisinger patients will be able to work with their family physician to modify their lifestyle and minimize risks that may be revealed,” he explained. “This forecasting will allow us to provide truly anticipatory healthcare instead of the responsive sick care that has long been the industry default across the nation.”
It will be interesting to see how and if genetic tests—free
or otherwise—will advance precision medicine goals and population health
treatments. It’s important for medical laboratory leaders to be involved in health
network agreements with genetic testing companies. And clinical laboratories should
be informed whenever private companies share their test results data with
patients and primary care providers.