UHLC professors discuss impacts of the “genetics revolution” on future law careers

rofessor Barbara Evans discusses how genetic data protection policy permeates into other forms of data protection during the panel discussion Tuesday.

Professor Barbara Evans discussed the barriers to genetics communication and the efforts to allow people greater access to their own genetic information during the panel discussion Tuesday.

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Sapna Kumar
Sapna Kumar
Jessica Roberts
Jessica Roberts
Barbara Evans
Barbara Evans

Oct. 30, 2013 -- A trio of University of Houston Law Center professors updated students on their latest genetic-related research projects on Tuesday and explained why today’s law graduates are likely to encounter genetics-related issues in many different law practice settings.

Professors Sapna Kumar, Jessica Roberts, and Barbara Evans, each an authority on the law of genetics, note that genetics is not just a healthcare topic anymore.  Advances in the life sciences already implicate intellectual property, civil rights, privacy, employment and discrimination, criminal, antitrust, environmental, and even natural resource law. “Are you getting the sense that there are a lot of different ways you may bump into genetics during the course of your law career?” Evans asked the students who filled the Hendricks Heritage Room.

Clients in diverse industrial sectors already are feeling impacts of the “genetics revolution.” Lawyers who can help clients devise good strategies for coping and prospering will be in demand. “When industries confront major, technology-driven restructurings, experience with the old ways of doing things counts for less and fresh-thinking, entrepreneurial problem-solvers can move to the front.  The fresher your ideas, the better,” Evans said.

The three briefly outlined their ongoing research projects:

  • Kumar, who teaches patent law, is focusing on the issue of genetic patents and the aftermath of the June U.S. Supreme Court ruling that isolated genes are not patentable because they are products of nature. Though the decision opened the door to greater competition in clinical genetic testing, the court didn’t go far enough, she said, to clear the way for broader testing to help those suffering from life or death diseases. Kumar advocates compulsory licensing under the administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and predicts the issue is far from resolved.
  • Roberts, who teaches health, disability, and genetics-related law courses, opened her remarks with a rousing, “What sounds like more fun than when science and law collide?” She is currently examining how the legal safeguarding of genetic information affects protection of other information, especially as it pertains to discrimination litigation. She outlined provisions of the 2008 Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act, which was more than a decade in the making long after laws against sex, gender, age, and disability discrimination had been enacted.  GINA prohibits use of genetic information by employers and other entities in various areas, including hiring and firing, as well as insurance companies in issuing health policies. Most litigation under the law involves requesting genetic information, specifically family history, she said, an unintended consequence which has made some doctors fearful of asking about a patient’s medical background.  She described efforts under way to develop a GINA II that will address perceived deficiencies in the original legislation.
  • Evans, George Butler Research Professor and director of the Center for Biotechnology & Law at the Law Center, has multiple sponsored research projects under way. She described novel liability and insurance issues with clinical exome sequencing, which tests large swathes of a person’s genome. This can generate extra information that patients do not wish to know or that health insurers may be reluctant to reimburse.  Another hot issue is barriers to genetic communication, such as state laws that block patients’ access to their own genetic information unless a doctor approves the communication.  Efforts are under way--both as a First Amendment issue and through regulatory proceedings--to “disintermediate” genetic communication so that people can gain greater access to their own genetic information. She likened this trend to the 16th-century Reformation that empowered people to read scriptures for themselves.  “We are on the brink of a world where people can read their own genomes, maybe with an iPhone attachment that samples their blood and beams it to a clinical lab and links them to service providers to help decipher its meaning.”  This trend obviously has the potential to restructure the healthcare system as we know it, creating tough regulatory problems for lawyers to solve. “Change means turmoil, but turmoil is good for lawyers,” she joked.  “It creates opportunities for enterprising law graduates.”   

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