By Dr. Anthony Policastro

Most people are well aware of health related privacy laws. They fall under what is called the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). It was passed in 1996. What it basically says is that you must give permission for your Protected Health Information (PHI) to be released.

Many people assume that applies to all health related information. That is not necessary true. A good example of that is the DNA database called 23 and Me. To this point, they have had 11 million people request having their ancestry data compiled. That data is not covered under HIPAA. The human genome project was completed in 2003 seven years after HIPAA.

In the meantime, 23 and Me has partnered with the drug company Glaxo Smith Kline. Of the 11 million people who used the service, 8.8 million of them checked a box that gave 23 and Me the right to use their data in whatever way they desired. The current plan is to use the genetic data base of those people to begin studying new drugs based upon genetic markers. 

The official term for this is pharmacogenomics. The goal is to make drug prescribing more efficient. It might involve new drugs. It might involve new uses for old drugs.

For example, if a patient has hypertension, there are many potential drugs to use. However, from a genetics standpoint some drugs may be better than others. They might be more effective to treat a certain genetic makeup. They might have less side effects for a certain genetic makeup.

There is a benefit to know which is the best drug with the fewest side effects. The issue is more related to how you get that information.

A company like 23 and Me will partner with a drug company like Glaxo Smith Kline. They can share their database to help develop such drugs.

So far that partnership has started looking at immunologic drugs for treating cancer. There are plans to look at drugs for both neurological and cardiovascular conditions. 

The CEO of the company is not a stranger to startups. She married Sergey Brin. He and his business partner Larry Page founded Google in the garage of the CEO’s sister.

An odd side effect of this is that individuals paid to have the company do their testing. If they want to benefit from the discoveries that follow, they would likely have to pay another fee to see if they are eligible for treatments.

A lot of this sounds like it comes from George Orwell’s novel 1984. Big Brother indeed may be watching. However, it is not that far fetched that many years from now a new approach to medicine might occur. 

A genetic test would be done on newborns. It would be encoded and put into a computer chip. That chip would be placed under the skin. A visit to the doctor would then involve scanning the chip to determine the correct medicine for that genetic makeup. This is a fruitful thought as we enter the New Year. Science continues to change the way we do things.

It is kind of ironic that some of the people who have given permission to 23 and Me to use their genetic data might be some of the same people that are complaining about invading their privacy in relation to COVID-19 vaccine. HIPAA was passed before the potential of genetic testing was discovered. Perhaps it may need to be revisited.

COVID update

Nationally, we had 834,000 new cases this week compared to 870,000 last week and 1,564,000 last year for the same period. The numbers appear to be steady.

Sussex County had 1,004 new cases this week compared to 818 last week and 1,001 last year for the same period. The numbers locally continue to rise.

Thus Sussex County is at about the same level as last year while the national numbers are lower for the same period. 

The United Kingdom is currently the hot spot for Omicron infections. There have been close to 5,000 individuals infected. About 44 percent of the cases in London are from the Omicron variant. Most of the vaccinated infected individuals had not received a booster dose. The first death from Omicron has also been recorded there.

The new COVID-19 antiviral drugs are being hailed a significant advance in treatment. We need to remember that bacteria becomes resistant to antibiotics. We have seen viruses become resistant to other antiviral drugs. It is likely that the antiviral drugs will be more effective when first used than they will be if resistance develops.