Should a patient have a right not to know genetic information about him or herself?

By Benjamin E. Berkman, JD, MPH

While promising to eventually revolutionize medicine, the capacity to cheaply and quickly generate an individual’s entire genome has not been without controversy.  Producing information on this scale seems to violate some of the accepted norms governing how to practice medicine, norms that evolved during the early years of genetic testing when a targeted paradigm dominated.  One of these widely accepted norms was that an individual had a right not to know (“RNTK”) genetic information about him or herself.  Prompted by evolving professional practice guidelines, the RNTK has become a highly controversial topic.  The medical community and bioethicists are actively engaged in a contentious debate about the extent to which individual choice should play a role (if at all) in determining which clinically significant findings are returned.

In a recent paper published in Genetics in Medicine, my coauthors and I provide some data that illuminates this and other issues. Our survey of 800 IRB members and staff about their views on incidental findings demonstrates how malleable views on the RNTK can be.  Respondents were first asked about the RNTK in the abstract: “Do research participants have a right not to know their own genetic information?  In other words, would it be acceptable for them to choose not to receive any GIFs?”  An overwhelming majority (96%) endorsed the right not-to-know.  But when asked about a case where a specific patient has chosen not to receive clinically beneficial incidental findings, only 35% indicated that the individual’s RNTK should definitely be respected, and 28% said that they would probably honor the request not to know.  Interestingly, the percentage of respondents who indicated that they do not support the RNTK increased from 2% at baseline to 26% when presented with the specific case.  The percentage of people who are unsure similarly jumps, from 1% to 11%.

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Bioethicist Art Caplan: No time to waste – the ethical challenges created by CRISPR

Bill of Health Contributor Art Caplan has a new article in EMBO Reports:

The term “CRISPR” has gained a lot of attention recently as a result of a debate among scientists about the possibility of genetically modifying the human germ line and the ethical implications of doing so. However, CRISPR is not just a method to edit the genomes of embryonic cells, as the public discussion might have implied; it is a powerful, efficient, and reliable tool for editing genes in any organism, and it has garnered significant attention and use among biologists for a variety of purposes. Thus, in addition to the discussion about human germ line editing, CRISPR raises or revives many other ethical issues, not all of which concern only humans, but also other species and the environment.

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Big Data, Genetics, and Re-Identification

by Zachary Shapiro

While all scientific research produces data, genomic analysis is somewhat unique in that it inherently produces vast quantities of data. Every human genome contains roughly 20,000-25,000 genes, so that even the most routine genomic sequencing or mapping will generate enormous amounts of data. Furthermore, next-generation sequencing techniques are being pioneered to allow researchers to quickly sequence genomes. These advances have resulted in both a dramatic reduction in the time needed to sequence a given genome, while also triggering a substantial reduction in cost. Along with novel methods of sequencing genomes, there have been improvements in storing and sharing genomic data, particularly using computer and internet based databases, giving rise to Big Data in the field of genetics.

While big data has proven useful for genomic research, there is a possibility that the aggregation of so much data could give rise to new ethical concerns. One concern is that promises of privacy made to individual participants might be undermined, if there exists a possibility of subject re-identification.

Re-identification of individual participants, from de-identified data contained in genetic databases, can occur when researchers apply unique algorithms that are able to cross-reference numerous data sets with the available genetic information. This can enable diligent researchers to re-identify specific individuals, even from data sets that are thought to be anonymized. Such re-identification represents a genuine threat to the privacy of the individual, as a researcher could learn about genetic risk factors for diseases, or other sensitive health and personal information, from combing through an individual’s genetic information.

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Monday, 9/21, HLS Health Law Workshop with Jessica Roberts

HLS Health Law Workshop: Jessica Roberts

September 21, 2015 5:00 PM
Hauser Hall, Room 102
Harvard Law School, 1575 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge MA

Download the paper: “Theories of Genetic Ownership”

Jessica L. Roberts is the Director of the Health Law and Policy Institute and an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law Center. She specializes in health law, disability law, and genetics and the law. Prior to UH, Professor Roberts was an Associate-in-Law at Columbia Law School and an Adjunct Professor of Disability Studies at the City University of New York. Immediately after law school, she clerked for the Honorable Dale Wainwright of the Texas Supreme Court and the Honorable Roger L. Gregory of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Professor Roberts’ research operates at the intersection of health law and antidiscrimination law. Her scholarship has appeared, or is forthcoming, in the Indiana Law Journal, the William and Mary Law Review, the Iowa Law Review, the Minnesota Law Review, the University of Illinois Law Review, the Notre Dame Law Review, the Vanderbilt Law Review, the University of Colorado Law Review, the American Journal of Law and Medicine and the Journal of Law and the Biosciences, among others. Professor Roberts teaches, or has taught, Contracts, Disabilities and the Law, Genetics and the Law, and Health Law Survey. In 2015, she received the university-wide Teaching Excellence Award and the Provost’s Certificate of Excellence. Professor Roberts was named a 2018 Greenwall Faculty Scholar in Bioethics.

Wednesday Webcast: “Gene Patenting, Innovation Incentives, and the Future of Intellectual Property” by Derek Bambauer

This week, my colleague Derek Bambauer will speak as part of the Regulatory Science series at the University of Arizona.  Free CLE attendance form and readings are available.

Tune in at 12:00pm (Pacific) / 3:00pm (Eastern) on Wed Sept 16.

The talk will also be archived at the same link.

NPRM Summary from HHS

As Michelle noted, the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) on human subjects research is out after a long delay. For my (and many Bill of Health bloggers’) view about its predecessor ANPRM, you can check out our 2014 book, Human Subjects Research Regulation: Perspectives on the Future.

Here is HHS’s own summary of what has changed and what it thinks is most important:

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and fifteen other Federal Departments and Agencies have announced proposed revisions to modernize, strengthen, and make more effective the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects that was promulgated as a Common Rule in 1991.  A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) was put on public display on September 2, 2015 by the Office of the Federal Register.  The NPRM seeks comment on proposals to better protect human subjects involved in research, while facilitating valuable research and reducing burden, delay, and ambiguity for investigators. It is expected that the NPRM will be published in the Federal Register on September 8, 2015.  There are plans to release several webinars that will explain the changes proposed in the NPRM, and a town hall meeting is planned to be held in Washington, D.C. in October. Continue reading

Journal of Law and the Biosciences: Call for Harvard Student Submissions

JLB coverThe Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School collaborates with Stanford and Duke Universities to publish the Journal of Law and Biosciences  (Oxford University Press), an online, open-access, peer-reviewed journal. JLB includes a Notes & Developments section, comprised  of  brief summaries and commentary on recent legislation, regulation, and case law written by graduate students at the collaborating schools. The Petrie­Flom Center is responsible for providing the Notes & Developments for one issue per annual volume.

We are currently seeking Harvard graduate students to contribute papers to be published in JLB’s Notes & Developments section in early 2016. In previous years, Notes & Developments have been generated from scratch specifically for JLB, based on selection from submitted proposals. This year, we are taking a different approach by publishing already complete (or to-be-completed by the deadline) original student papers (such as student notes, course papers, etc.) written by graduate students from any Harvard school.  Notes & Developments are limited to 5000 words, including footnotes and references,  and  should  be  on  a  topic  of  relevance  to  law  and  the  biosciences,  in particular a topic of relatively recent concern, controversy, or change. They should focus on  describing  the  issue  at  hand,  explaining  why  it  is  relevant to scholars and practitioners, and providing analysis and questions for further consideration.

Interested students should submit their papers and CVs for consideration no later than September 7, 2015 (earlier  is  welcome). Up to four papers will be selected for publication in the New Developments section of JLB. Applicants will be notified by the end of September. Selected students will receive comments on their papers by the end of October, and will also be responsible for providing comments to the other selected students. Revisions will be due by the end of November, and final submissions to JLB will be due by the end of December 2015.

Please send all application materials, and direct all questions, to Holly Fernandez Lynch,

Affective Forecasting and Genetics

by Zachary Shapiro

Psychological research on “affective forecasting,” studying individuals’ ability to predict their future emotional states, consistently shows that people are terrible at predicting their ability to adapt to future adversity. This finding has particular significance for medical decision-making, as so many serious health decisions hinge on quality-of-life judgments, generally made by an individual balancing risks and benefits they perceive of a future state that is likely to result from a given therapeutic regime.

Much of the research on affective forecasting has focused on high-stakes events, restricting study participation to those likely to find the study event particularly significant, such as tenure-track faculty, registered voters, or sports enthusiasts. Despite a growing body of research on forecasting biases in the medical domain, little work has previously systematically considered such biases in clinical genetics. However, as the prevalence of genetic testing has increased, scholars have noticed forecasting deficiencies with increasing regularity.[1]

While evidence suggests that those who receive genetic testing, whether they are non-carriers or carriers of specific genes, differ in terms of short-term general psychological distress, their long-term distress levels do not differ significantly. Results of research into the affective reactions of patients undergoing predictive genetic testing suggest that, in general, psychological outcomes are not as negative as one may expect.

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What Should the Future Look Like for Brain-Based Pain Imaging in the Law? Three Eminent Scholars Weigh In

By Amanda C. Pustilnik, Professor of Law, University of Maryland Carey School of Law; Faculty Member, Center for Law, Brain & Behavior, Massachusetts General Hospital

What should the future look like for brain-based pain measurement in the law?  This is the question tackled by our concluding three contributors:  Diane Hoffmann, Henry (“Hank”) T. Greely, and Frank Pasquale. Professors Hoffmann and Greely are among the founders of the fields of health law and law & biosciences. Both discuss parallels to the development of DNA evidence in court and the need for similar standards, practices, and ethical frameworks in the brain imaging area.  Professor Pasquale is an innovative younger scholar who brings great theoretical depth, as well as technological savvy, to these fields.  Their perspectives on the use of brain imaging in legal settings, particularly for pain measurement, illuminate different facets of this issue.

This post describes their provocative contributions – which stake out different visions but also reinforce each other.  The post also highlights the forthcoming conference-based book with Oxford University Press and introduces future directions for the use of the brain imaging of pain – in areas as diverse as the law of torture, the death penalty, drug policy, criminal law, and animal rights and suffering.  Please read on!

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Neuroimaging as Evidence of Pain: It’s Time to Prepare

By Henry T. Greely, Edelman Johnson Professor of Law, Stanford Law School; Professor (by courtesy) of Genetics, Stanford Medical School; Director, Program in Neuroscience & Society, Stanford University

The recent meeting at Harvard on neuroimaging, pain, and the law demonstrated powerfully that the offering of neuroimaging as evidence of pain, in court and in administrative hearings, is growing closer. The science for identifying a likely pattern of neuroimaging results strongly associated with the subjective sensation of pain keeps improving. Two companies (and here) recently were founded to provide electro-encephalography (EEG) evidence of the existence of pain. And at least one neuroscientist has been providing expert testimony that a particular neuroimaging signal detected using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is useful evidence of the existence of pain, as discussed recently in Nature.

If nothing more is done, neuroimaging evidence of pain will be offered, accepted, rejected, relied upon, and discounted in the normal, chaotic course of the law’s evolution. A “good” result, permitting appropriate use of some valid neuroimaging evidence and rejecting inappropriate use of other such evidence, might come about. Or it might not.

We can do better than this existing non-system. And the time to start planning a better approach is now. (Read on for more on how)

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An ELSI Program for Pain Research: A Call to Action

By Diane Hoffmann, Director, Law & Health Care Program; Professor of Law; University of Maryland School of Law

As someone who has been greatly concerned about and devoted much of my scholarship to legal obstacles to the treatment of pain, I applaud Professor Pustilnik for increasing attention to the role of neuroimaging in our efforts to understand our experience of pain and how the law does or does not adequately take into account such experience. Pustilnik has written eloquently about this issue in several published articles but her efforts to bring together scientists, medical experts, legal academics, and judges (see also here) deserves high praise as a method for illuminating what we know and do not know about pain and the brain and to what extent brain imaging can serve as a diagnostic tool or an external validator of pain experience.

In this post, I discuss how DNA testing serves as a precedent for how to develop responsible uses of new technologies in law, including, potentially, brain imaging for pain detection. The ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of DNA research and testing were integral to developing national protocols and rules about DNA. Brain imaging of pain needs its own ELSI initiative, before zealous adoption outpaces both the technology and the thinking about the right guiding principles and limitations.

The idea of brain images serving as a “pain-o-meter” to prove or disprove pain in legal cases is clearly a premature use of this information and likely an over simplification of the mechanisms of pain expression. However, the potential for an objective diagnostic tool or indicator of the pain experience is something that lawyers representing clients in criminal, personal injury, workers comp or disability cases may find too attractive to resist and attempt to have admitted in the courtroom. This state of affairs brings to mind the ways in which lawyers have attempted to use genetic test results, initially obtained for medical purposes, in litigation.  (Read on for more about ELSI in DNA and several national pain initiatives that could adopt the Human Genome Project and DNA ELSI model).

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The Impact of Broccoli II and Tomato II on European patents in conventional breeding, GMO’s and Synthetic Biology: A grand finale of a juicy patents tale?

I am pleased to announce our recent paper entitled “The Impact of Broccoli II & Tomato II on European patents in conventional breeding, GMO’s and Synthetic Biology: The grand finale of a juicy patents tale?”, which is available on SSRN, and forthcoming in Biotechnology Law Report, Vol. 34, Number 3 (June 2015), pp. 1-18.

Our analysis deals with a seminal judgment on the controversial and sometimes even emotionally debated European “Broccoli” and “Tomato” patents, which has captivated the European patent and plant science communities for many years: On March 25, 2015, the EBA of the European Patent Office (EBA) finally issued its much awaited decisions on the consolidated referrals G2/12 (“Tomato II”) and G2/13 (“Broccoli II”), clarifying the exclusion from patentability of essentially biological processes, such as conventional crossing and selection, and in particular its impact on the patentability of claims for products resulting from such processes. The so-called “Tomato II” case concerned an invention entitled “method for breeding tomatoes having reduced water content and product of the method,” whereas the so-called “Broccoli II” case involved an invention of a “method for selective increase of the anticarcinogenic glucosinolates in brassica species”. Continue reading

Ariosa v. Sequenom Invalidates the Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing Patent

On Friday, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment of invalidity of several claims in Sequenom’s diagnostic method patent on the grounds that they were not directed to patent-eligible subject matter under the relevant section of the Patent Act, 35 U.S.C. § 101.  The case, Ariosa v. Sequenom, is important not only to those who have been following the recent back-and-forth between the Federal Circuit and Supreme Court on patent-eligible subject matter, but also to those who study medical innovation, as it implicates questions of innovation incentives and of access to an important new technology.

The case involves a technology known as non-invasive prenatal testing, or NIPT.  Previously, pregnant women seeking to determine whether their fetuses possessed particular genetic abnormalities only had the option to undergo procedures, like amniocentesis, which pose a risk to the developing fetus.  The scientists in this case made a startling discovery: there is a small amount of fetal DNA circulating in the pregnant woman’s plasma and serum.  These portions of maternal blood samples had previously been discarded as medical waste, and the idea that genetic abnormalities could be discovered through a non-invasive procedure like a blood draw, which poses no risk to the health of the fetus, was groundbreaking.  A patent on the method of detecting the fetal DNA in the mother’s serum or plasma was obtained, and Sequenom commercialized a test to practice the patent.  Sequenom was soon embroiled in litigation with Ariosa and other companies which it believed were infringing its patent.

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Transatlantic Lessons in Regulation of Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy: Prospect of Disease-Free Children for Women Carriers through MRT

Cambridge, Mass., April 9, 2015 – A paper forthcoming on Friday in Science discusses the regulation of a new technology that gives hope to women who carry genetic disease. Mutant mitochondrial DNA gives rise to a broad range of heritable clinical syndromes. Cure of those affected remains out of reach. However, recently developed Mitrochondrial Replacement Therapy (MRT) – sometimes known as “three-parent IVF” — has raised the prospect of disease-free progeny for women carriers.

In the UK, legislation regulating the clinical application of MRT has recently been approved by the House of Commons and the House of Lords, after a 10-year process.

In the United States, the vetting of MRT, underway for a year, remains a work in progress. A new paper in Science released Friday, April 10, compares and contrasts the regulatory history of MRT in the UK and the United States, discusses the relevant ethical overlay, examines potential lessons learned, and charts the likely path forward in the United States. It is written by I. Glenn Cohen, Harvard Law Professor and Faculty Director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School; Eli Adashi, Professor of Medical Science at Brown University; and Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics at Oxford University and Director of The Oxford Centre for Neuroethics.

“There is much FDA and the U.S. can learn from the way in which the U.K. has evaluated and regulated MRT,” said Professor Cohen. “These lessons are particularly important because MRT is just one of a series of new reproductive and genetic technologies, including gene editing and In Vitro Gametogenesis, that FDA and regulators across the world will soon be confronting.”

Read the full paper now on the Science website.

Two forthcoming publications on (1) European Stem Cell Patenting, and (2) IP issues in Biobanking

I am happy to announce the following publications:

1) Minssen, Timo and Nordberg, A., The Evolution of the CJEU’s Case Law on Stem Cell Patents: Context, Outcome and Implications of Case C‑364/13 International Stem Cell Corporation (March 11, 2015). Available at SSRN:  (under review for journal publication)


On 18th December 2014, the CJEU rendered its’ much-anticipated decision in C‑364/13 International Stem Cell Corporation v Comptroller General of Patents (ISCC). Qualifying its’ earlier ruling in Brüstle v. Greenpeace (Brüstle) with regard to non-fertilised human ova stimulated by parthenogenesis, the Court held that in order to constitute a ‘human embryo’ – and thus to be unpatentable under the EU Biotechnology Directive – the stimulated ovum must have the “inherent capacity to develop into a human being”. This would allow patents on innovative parthenotes which had not been genetically modified to achieve totipotent capabilities. Hence the judgment establishes a crucial limitation of the broad interpretation of “human embryos” in Brüstle, where the CJEU held that parthenotes are covered by the term “human embryo” since they are “capable of commencing the process of development of a human being”. The ISCC decision is to be welcomed since it provides an ethically justifiable leeway for patenting and offers reasonable support to the commercial viability of European cell therapy research. Yet, ISCC’s impact still depends on national implementations and only applies to certain hESC cells. Thus, further clarifications would be helpful concerning other non-totipotent hESCs.

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Art Caplan: Is It Ethical to Create Babies From Three DNA Sources? Absolutely

A new piece by Art Caplan, via Wired:

The House of Commons in the U.K. has now voted to permit mitochondrial DNA replacement, which enables babies to be born who have DNA from three people.

Mitochondria are the batteries of our cells that provide energy for cell division and growth. We get ours from our mother’s genes. If there is a defect in a mother’s mitochondria, it can have devastating consequences for her children, resulting in almost certain death. But, by extracting a mitochondrion from a healthy donor egg, scientists are now able to conduct a miniature organ transplant on the cellular level to create a healthy baby through in vitro fertilization. Such a baby has its parents’ genes, except for one small but crucial portion obtained from a donor.

If the House of Lords also approves, Britain will be the first nation to authorize the procedure. The United States is studying mitochondrial transplants. A series of meetings began last week at the Institute of Medicine at the request by the Food and Drug Administration.

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Federal Newborn Screening Law Emphasizes Informed Consent

Allison M. Whelan, J.D.
Senior Fellow, Center for Bioethics and Global Health Policy, University of California, Irvine
Guest Blogger

On December 18, 2014, President Obama signed into law the Newborn Screening Saves Lives Reauthorization Act of 2014. The Act includes new timeliness and tracking measures to ensure newborn babies with deadly yet treatable disorders are diagnosed quickly. These changes responded to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation that found thousands of hospitals delayed sending babies’ blood samples to state labs.  A primary purpose of newborn screening is to detect disorders quickly, so any delays increase the risk of illness, disability, and even death.

Although a major reason for the Act’s amendments is to address these problematic delays, another important addition to the Act establishes a parental consent requirement before residual newborn blood spots (NBS) are used in federally-funded research. The Act directs the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to update the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects (the “Common Rule”) to recognize federally-funded research on NBS as “human subjects” research. It also eliminates the ability of an institutional review board to waive informed consent requirements for NBS research.

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Two new publications on “European patent strategies under the UPCA” and on “Synthetic Biology & Intellectual Property Rights”

I am pleased to announce two new publications on (1) “European patent strategies under the UPCA” and (2)  “Synthetic Biology & Intellectual Property Rights”:

1) Minssen, T & Lundqvist, B 2014, ‘The ”opt out” and “opt-in” provisions in the Unified Patent Court Agreement – Impact and strategies for European patent portfolios‘ , published  in N I R (Nordic IP Review), vol 2014, nr. 4, s. 340-357.

Abstract: Many questions concerning the UPC’s jurisdiction during the transitional period for European Patents under Article 83 UPCA remain unsolved. Focusing on the “opt in” and “opt out” choices under Article 83 (3) & (4), this paper discusses the legal nature and prerequisites of these provisions, as well as the options and strategic choices that patent proprietors and applicants are facing. Considering the pros and cons of the emerging unitary system in light of a persisting uncertainty of how to interpret relevant stipulations, it is emphasized that there will be no clear-cut solutions. Rather the suitability of each approach will have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all circumstances surrounding an invention, its patent-claims and the underlying business strategy. Recognizing that the worst thing to do is to do nothing at all, we conclude with a summary and some general remarks.

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Check out the latest news from the Petrie-Flom Center!

11-14 newsletter screenshot

Check out the November 14th edition of the Petrie-Flom Center’s biweekly e-newsletter for the latest on events, affiliate news and scholarship, and job and fellowship opportunities in health law policy and bioethics.

Call for Proposals: The 2016 Brocher Foundation Residencies

By Timo Minssen

I have just been informed that a new call for proposals for the 2016 Brocher Foundation residencies has been launched. I can warmly recommend this splendid opportunity to any researcher or group of researchers in the fields of Bioethics, Medical Anthropology, Health Economics, Health Policy, Health Law, Philosophy of Medicine and Health, Medical Humanities, Social Science Perspectives on Health, Medical Ethics, or History of Medicine.

A grant by the Brocher Foundation enables international researchers to carry out their projects for a 1-4 month period at one of the most beautiful places in Europe. The Brocher Foundation’s seat is located in Switzerland at the shores of the beautiful Lake Geneva. The location is very close to the French border and to international organisations particularly relevant to the health sector, such as WHO, WTO, WIPO, UNHCR, ILO, WMA, ICRC, and others.

The following information has been extracted from the webpage of the Brocher Foundation:  Continue reading