Developed by the Cytokine Institute, a research and consulting firm affiliated with the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago, the technology uses DNA to determine a link between exposure to a toxin and a serious illness. It does so by identifying a toxin’s unique DNA signature on a person’s affected cells.
The technology, launched in June, has already been used in two dozen civil lawsuits between workers and insurance companies to verify the connection between exposure to toxins and a serious illness, says CEO Bruce Gillis, a doctor specializing in medical toxicology.
“It will get rid of all the nuisance and frivolous lawsuits once and for all,” Gillis says.
Another technology developed by the company can measure the level of cytokines, or small proteins in a person’s cells. Cytokine levels are elevated when an injury occurs. Employers can use a blood sample taken at the time of employment as a baseline, Gillis says. If a worker reports an injury, a new blood sample showing an increase in cytokine levels can verify that an injury has occurred.
“We’re saying if you have a concern about making an accurate diagnosis on a job-related injury or determining whether someone’s pain is real, we have a methodology to track all that and answer those questions,” Gillis says.
Collecting DNA, however, poses privacy and discrimination issues, says Alan Model, an attorney in the Newark, New Jersey, office of Littler Mendelson, the nation’s largest employment and labor law firm.
“This raises a lot of potential employment issues,” says Model, who represents employers. “It’s controversial. There are no federal laws, and state laws vary with how DNA testing can be used. And there are privacy concerns.”
His firm counsels employers against conducting such pre-employment testing. Though no federal laws prohibit genetic testing, Congress passed a bill in April that bans employers from denying employees health insurance based on such tests. More than 20 states have laws that limit or prohibit employers from collecting genetic information.
Celeste Monforton, an occupational health researcher at the George Washington University School of Public Health & Health Services, worries that collecting an employee’s DNA, even for a limited purpose, may expose workers to discrimination.
Employers may be able to retroactively determine that a person, based on their DNA, was predisposed to an illness that may have been acquired through work.
“It’s a really slippery slope,” she says.
In 2002, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission won a $2.2 million settlement in a discrimination suit against Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. in what was one of the first cases based on the federal agency’s belief that genetic testing discriminates. The railway was charged with violating the Americans With Disabilities Act by having an employee submit to a physical that included a blood test in order to look for predisposed medical conditions.
In a recent civil case, the Cytokine Institute’s MSDS1 method was employed to determine whether a firefighter’s leukemia was caused by exposure to benzene. When the unique benzene signature was not found in the firefighter’s genes, the case against the insurance company, Liberty Mutual, was settled for a much smaller award, Gillis says.
Cytokine’s technology, AccuHealth Monitoring, also can uncover risk factors for certain cancers, central nervous system disorders, joint-related disease, asthma, emphysema, diabetes and cerebrovascular disease, Gillis says.
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