Show Me the Money: A Cynical Look at Gene Testing

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(note: while this post is somewhat cynical, usually I have a favorable opinion of humans in general)

Recently, an associate asked me about the new “suicide gene” discovered this summer. Johns Hopkins published a study that showed an increase in a variation of a protein produced by gene SKA2 in the brains of people who have committed suicide. They then screened a group of people and correlated the level of SKA2 in their blood and their risk for suicide. From this they then designed a model analysis that predicted which of the participants were experiencing suicidal thoughts or had attempted suicide with 80 percent certainty. Those with more severe risk of suicide were predicted with 90 percent accuracy.

Some of my associate’s colleagues had asked about testing for this gene. I told her my hunch would be “more research is needed” before a company could make a diagnostic test with this info.

There sure is an incentive for the drug companies to develop a test. There is an association between anti-depressant use and suicide. As 11% of the U.S. population over the age of 12 years is on anti-depressants, drug companies could make argue that a drug is safer in combination with a test to determine which of the 11% will attempt suicide. And it could save them money in future lawsuits.

There sure is an incentive for genetic testing labs to develop a test. There are approximately 313 million people in U.S. as of 2013. Children under the age of 12 are not tracked statistically, but about 24% are under age 18, so let’s say there are about 238 million over 18. Of that, 26 million are taking anti-depressants. A genetic screening test for 26 million would be a bonanza for the genetic testing companies, even if they are only testing a subset of that population, such as everyone taking Prozac.

However, approximately 750,000 people attempt suicide and approximately 30,000 people commit suicide in the U.S. each year. The main cause is thought to be untreated depression. So the challenge would be how to find the untreated people, and screen them. Hmmm. And if most of the people committing suicide are untreated, would it make more sense to spend money trying to get these people into treatment?
That could ultimately make money for the drug companies and genetic labs, because more people would be prescribed drugs and tested.

My feeling is; if some corporation can find out a way to make money, we’ll see some decrease in the suicide rate, harsh as that may sound.

As far as the genetics of mental health conditions, it’s been thought for a while that multiple genes contribute a small amount each to the overall condition. Most of the recent “suicide gene” studies look at only one gene- for example BDNF was described in Oct 2011, RGS2 was described in Oct 2011 and SKA2 was described in July 2014. A test will most likely need to include multiple genes, which can make interpretation difficult. Sundance Diagnostics claimed they would have a test for suicide risk for those taking Prozac and Zoloft available in early 2014. It’s almost 2015 and the test is not available yet.
Johns Hopkins is looking for partners to help “develop & commercialize the technology as a suicide risk diagnostic test.”
It will be interesting to see who makes it first to market.

link to Johns Hopkins SKA2 study:
Jerry Guintivano, Tori Brown, Alison Newcomer, Marcus Jones, Olivia Cox, Brion S. Maher, William W. Eaton, Jennifer L. Payne, Holly C. Wilcox, Zachary A. Kaminsky. Identification and Replication of a Combined Epigenetic and Genetic Biomarker Predicting Suicide and Suicidal Behaviors. American Journal of Psychiatry, 2014; DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.14010008

If you want to partner with Johns Hopkins: