Team Counsyl at FabFest 2014

16 Sep

This past weekend, energized from our recent profile in Fast Company magazine, Team Counsyl flew to Chicago to partake in Bright Pink FabFest 2014. At the opening ceremony, CEO Lindsay Avner talked about the goal of reaching 52 million women between the ages of 18 and 45, so that they can each be proactive about their breast and ovarian health. Lindsay lost her grandmother and great-grandmother to breast cancer, and watched her mother survive breast and ovarian cancer. Her mother was present at FabFest to support the cause. At the end of a high-energy day of intense workouts, yoga classes, meditation, makeovers and hair braiding, over 800 women gathered to listen to BRCA positive women, like Brianna, who tweeted:



Team Counsyl was inspired by the positive energy of every woman who attended FabFest. We sent a big group of Counsyl ladies from across the country to participate in the event: Laura Martini, our Director of Product Design; Kathleen Berentsen, our Boston-based genetic counselor; Elizabeth Collins, our variant curation specialist and very own yoga teacher; Terri Meyer, our Regional Director of Sales; Shivani Nazareth, our Director of Women’s Health; Megan Lundin, our Strategic Accounts Executive; Michelle Ostrowski, one of our midwest-based Clinical Accounts Executives, and Emily Leung, our San Francisco-based team lead. We were thrilled to support the cause and truly believe in the Bright Pink mission of saving lives by giving people the tools to live proactively at a young age.

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 12.47.56 PMProcessed with VSCOcam with m3 presetTerri Michelle

The New Counsyl

8 May

Starting last summer, we surveyed thousands of people who took our Family Prep Screen, and spent hundreds of hours speaking with physicians and patients in order to understand how Counsyl fits into their lives. We talked with an incredibly diverse set of people, including an opera singer, a military wife, a physician in Long Island, and a man in Costa Rica who’d flown to the U.S. to get Counsyl.

What did we hear? It has become clear that Counsyl is doing something special; when we spoke to our patients, what stood out was a sense of relief after learning their results. In fact, many of them said “it’s good to know,” when describing the value of Counsyl, which is why we have now made this phrase the tagline of our company.

We’ve quietly been testing a new “Get Counsyl” approach over the past few months, and are thrilled to report that it has already introduced over a hundred new doctors to Counsyl. Our vision is to give millions of men and women access to vital information about their bodies so they can confidently make choices about their lives. Today’s launch is the first step in making this vision a reality.

As a part of this launch, you’ll see:

  • Results available online to any patient who requests them from our support team
  • New educational videos featuring our very own Kaylene Ready, MS, CGC
  • Counsyl Complete, a service that allows providers and patients to communicate about results in real-time
  • On-call counseling with a medical professional for immediate consultations on positive results
  • Get Counsyl, a way for people to request a prescription through their doctor
  • A price estimator that provides people with transparency around the cost of screening
  • An improved Family Prep Screen which can pick up 50% more carriers using new sequencing technology
  • Our Inherited Cancer Screen, starting with cancer susceptibility genes BRCA1 and BRCA2

We’re energized about our new offerings. But more importantly, we’re excited at what these new services can do for patients.  The chance to help patients make clinical choices is an incredible responsibility, and one that we take very seriously. And as they made these choices, some patients have been gracious enough to share their stories with us. Jodi K. learned that she inherited a BRCA1 mutation from her father. Jodi consulted several medical specialists and decided to pursue a preventative mastectomy. Similarly, Holly T., a hairstylist in California recently learned of her BRCA positive status and is weighing her options. Holly said “I want to be here for my kids, and I want to do everything I can to stay healthy.”

We are going to keep pushing the envelope and continue to innovate here at Counsyl, because real people like Jodi, Holly, and the countless others who shared their personal stories with us, depend on it. As Brittany M. from Maine told us, “It was just really good to finally have the information that we wanted.”

-Ramji, Rishi and Eric


Encouraging Screening Before Pregnancy: My JScreen Story

12 Dec

JScreen’s creation involved multiple people in different circumstances, times, and places all experiencing some event or spark of intuition and creativity that grew into the will to do “something” to prevent Jewish genetic diseases.  “Something” grew into JScreen. For me, inspiration first struck when I was giving a talk to a group of other faculty members at Emory University in Atlanta about Jewish genetic screening in 2007.  The idea that we should use a combination of online education and saliva screening to make it easier for people to be screened struck me so suddenly, that I stopped my talk and just stood still for what was probably seconds, but felt like minutes. 

I had been wrestling with the dilemma of how best to encourage screening for years.  Trained as a genetic counselor, I had witnessed couple after couple bringing their infants into our clinic, only to be told that their child was suffering from a devastating condition.  The parents inevitably cried out “but no one in our family has this!”  They were right, of course, but that didn’t help their baby.  These types of diseases often come out of nowhere.  Sadly, many of these parents hadn’t been offered screening by their physicians, or if they had, the issue wasn’t raised until the pregnancy was well underway. As it stands today, genetic carrier screening is typically offered, if at all, when a couple is already pregnant.  This timing is understandable, because they may not show up in a clinic before conceiving.  Pregnancy, though, is not the optimal time for screening to be offered.

Professional groups, such as the American College of Obstetrics & Gynecology[1] and the American College of Medical Genetics[2], support the belief that preconception screening should be encouraged.  Studies bear out the reasons why.  Sparbel et al. published an article in 2009[3] eloquently describing the difficulties that prenatal screening raises for women who can’t help but view their options through the “prism” of their pregnancies.  Prior to conception, a couple who discovers that their children are at risk for a genetic disease can carefully review their reproductive options, which can range from using an egg or a sperm donor to adoption to preparing for the possibility of having an affected child by marshalling resources for early treatment.  Outside of the pressures of pregnancy, couples can take their time to learn about the condition, talk with parents of children who are affected, and make the best decisions for themselves.  Many of the ethical concerns surrounding carrier screening evaporate outside of the context of pregnancy.

To be clear, I do not mean to imply that prenatal screening is not helpful.  Many couples find the information they learn from prenatal diagnosis to be invaluable for providing peace of mind, deciding whether to continue a pregnancy, or planning for the birth of an affected child.  For example, a couple who learns that their child will have a condition might decide to move closer to relatives who can help with the care of a child with special health care needs.  Prenatal diagnosis is an important tool.   If the goal, though, is to prevent disease, many options are simply not available by the time prenatal screening is being considered.

Also, while newborn screening programs exist to identify children with some genetic conditions, only a few conditions are included, leaving parents in the dark about their child’s need for early intervention.  While newborn screening is designed to find babies before they become sick and begin treatment early, affected babies are still sometimes identified too late. Knowing that a baby is at risk or is affected early can be lifesaving in these situations.

As a Southerner, perhaps I feel the painful preconception/prenatal screening dilemma more acutely than do some of my colleagues.  Interest in prenatal testing is considerably lower where I practice in Georgia due to the politically conservative or religious values that are prevalent.  I feel a grave sense of urgency to figure out a way for screening to become common place BEFORE pregnancy.  I know that if we don’t find a way to make this a reality, screening won’t be an option for many of the people I work with, and they and their children will continue to suffer from preventable conditions.

So, why doesn’t preconception screening readily occur?  One reason is that ordering the testing is logistically difficult in many cases.  One of my past roles at Emory was to work with the Newborn Screening (NBS) Program, as their genetic counselor.  As such, I received calls from parents and other relatives of babies diagnosed through NBS wanting to arrange for carrier screening.  They had seen firsthand the impact of a condition on their family, and wanted to learn if their children would be at risk.    Few of these people who contacted me lived anywhere near a genetic counselor.  In one case, the uncle of a child diagnosed through NBS wanted screening, but he lived in rural Colorado.  I spent upwards of 5 hours on the phone with his physician’s office helping them identify the best place to send a sample, determine how much it would cost, and explain the results when they were finally available. In another case, a woman whose daughter was found to be a carrier of cystic fibrosis through NBS didn’t have a physician who could order the screen at all.  As a result, she was never able to have screening.  I couldn’t help but believe that it just shouldn’t be this hard!  For these reasons, when the idea for JScreen struck me, I couldn’t help but answer the call.

JScreen is a public health initiative whose goal is to overcome many of the barriers to preconception screening by taking advantage of the fact that we can now test saliva.   By combining online education with access to certified genetic counselors, our program aims to make screening easily accessible, affordable, and on a very pragmatic level useful in a way that prenatal screening just can’t be.

JScreen opened its virtual doors in September of this year.  It would be simplistic to believe that this program is the singular answer to preventing Jewish genetic diseases; people smarter than I have wrestled with this problem for decades.  The barriers to screening are complex, and will continue to be so.   I do believe, though, that JScreen is a step in the right direction; we are a piece of the puzzle that can ultimately lead to widespread preconception screening.  It’s an audacious goal.  For now, though, I can’t help but smile when a JScreen test is requested by someone who has checked the box “non-pregnant.”  I can’t help but pray for many, many more.


 Tricia Page is the Senior Director for the JScreen program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.  After receiving her B.S.  in Genetics from the University of Georgia, she received her Master’s degree in Genetic Counseling from the University  of Texas Health Science Center at Houston in 1996 and h er certification from the American Board of Medical Genetics  in 1999. At Emory, Tricia worked as the Director of Genetic Counseling Services, Program Manager for Newborn  Screening, and the Assistant Director of the Genomics and Public Health Program prior to taking her current roles.  In  her current position, Tricia focuses on delivery of genetic services from both a clinical and public health perspective.  She is interested in non-traditional service delivery models, especially those capitalizing on advances in genetic testing and health education.  Tricia is a fourth generation Georgian who enjoys spending time with her family, gardening, and training for triathlons.

1. Genetics ACo: ACOG Committee Opinion No. 442: Preconception and prenatal carrier screening for genetic diseases in individuals of Eastern European Jewish descent.Obstetrics and Gynecology 2009, 114(4):950-953.

2. Grody WW, Cutting GR, Klinger KW, Richards CS, Watson MS, Desnick RJ: Laboratory standards and guidelines for population-based cystic fibrosis carrier screening. Genet Med 2001, 3(2):149-154.

3. Sparbel KJH, Williams JK: Pregnancy as Foreground in Cystic Fibrosis Carrier Testing Decisions in Primary Care. GENETIC TESTING AND MOLECULAR BIOMARKERS 2009, 13(1):133-142.

One Step Closer to Genetic Literacy

11 Nov

At Counsyl, we are starting a free series of educational webinars to promote genetic literacy. Clinical genetics is evolving quickly, and genetic counselors are a limited resource. Physicians and nurses often tell us that it’s hard to keep up. Even as a genetic counselor, I find it challenging to stay current with all of the new clinical applications of genetics, like non-invasive prenatal screening, whole exome sequencing, inherited cancer panels, and personalized genomics. There is plenty of data showing that physicians and nurses are not very comfortable with genetics. Depending on the specialty, some may have only had one course of genetics in school.  At a time when genetics is becoming an integral part of all facets of medicine, this is surely a problem.

Our goal is simple: engage medical professionals through simple and practical tools for education. We’re all about making things accessible at Counsyl. So, mark your calendars and spread the word. Our first webinar is scheduled for January 23, 2014 and the speakers include Caroline Lieber, Dr. John Marshall, and Dr. Bryce Mendelsohn.  The topic is “Understanding Expanded Carrier Screening & Its Benefits to Your Patients.” You can sign up at Future topics will expand beyond Counsyl to include a broad range of “hot topics.”

For a glimpse of what to expect from our first webinar, check out the bios of our awesome speakers:

Dr. John Marshall

Dr. John Marshall


Dr. Marshall has served as Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UCLA, Chairman of Obstetrics and  Gynecology at Harbor/UCLA Medical Center,  and Clinical Professor of Biomedical Sciences and Medical Education at Mercer University School of Medicine Savannah Campus.  He authored over 100 scientific publications and currently works for Counsyl.

Caroline Lieber

Caroline Lieber


Caroline Lieber is the former Director of the Joan Marks Graduate Program in Human Genetics at Sarah Lawrence College. She is actively involved in professional education and recently traveled to Guatemala to assess the provision of genetic counseling services abroad. Caroline is a genetic counseling consultant for Counsyl.


Dr. Bryce Mendelsohn

Dr. Bryce Mendelsohn


Bryce Mendelsohn received his MD/PhD in Molecular Genetics and Genomics from Washington University in St. Louis. Since that time, he completed a clinical residency in Pediatrics. He studies metabolic disorders and has tremendous interest in the pediatric application of genome-era technologies.


For suggestions on future webinars or a chance to speak on a hot topic, submit ideas to Kenny Wong, Director of Genetic Services at Counsyl, by filling out this form:

A Fun Friday Post

25 Oct

We were so amused by this rap video on the discovery of DNA, we just had to share. Enjoy!

Efficient Django QuerySet Use

23 Oct

Jayson Falkner gave a talk at a recent Django Meetup in San Francisco on the advanced use of Django’s QuerySet API based on lessons learned at Counsyl.

Below are the slides and audio.

Continue reading

True Facts About Time Zones

27 Sep

Here at Counsyl we use Python, Django and Postgres as key components of our software technology stack. As part of modeling and tracking a complex business process we often need to answer the question so often and so eloquently asked by the philosopher Morris Day: What Time Is It? And also, what time was it? When did that happen? When does this need to happen?

The three software packages mentioned above provide tools for tracking time accurately, but there are some traps you can fall into if you are not careful. I recently investigated a time-related anomaly in a subsystem I maintain and discovered some interesting facts about Django time settings. The results of that investigation are now available as a simple Django application in the Counsyl GitHub repository.

This particular problem revolves around time zones. A time zone is a set of rules for determining a clock reading, say 11:00 am on July 24, 2011, given a fixed point in time. Or, given a clock reading, determining the fixed point in time it refers to. Just knowing the clock reading isn’t enough because that clock reading occurred multiple times around the world.

Let’s call any representation of a fixed point in time a timestamp, even if part of the representation is implicit (maybe we just happen to know that some clock reading is for Pacific Standard Time). As a timestamp makes its way from a Python application using Django to Postgres and back again it passes through the application code, the Django ORM, the Python database adaptor and finally Postgres before returning back again in the reverse trip.

So that gives us three timestamps we might care about:

  1. The timestamp we started with.
  2. The timestamp we stored in Postgres.
  3. The timestamp we loaded from Postgres.

Of course, for a particular timestamp in step 1 we’d want the other two to be equivalent, i.e., to refer to the same fixed point in time even if they might use different representations. But, if you are not careful, all three could be different from each other.

The README file in the Django application has the full explanation and the application itself has the details, but here is a high-level summary.

Python represents timestamps with datetime objects which come in two flavors, respectively called aware and naive, but which could also be called ‘explicit time zone’ and ‘implicit time zone’. An aware datetime in Python is a clock reading and a particular time zone representation. Such a datetime is an unambiguous representation of some fixed point in time. A naive datetime has no explicit time zone reference, we just happen to know (hopefully) what time zone it happens to be in.

The trouble comes in with naive datetimes and daylight savings time. If you are using an implicit time zone that has daylight savings time, then there are naive datetimes that can mean two different fixed points in time. That’s because when you have a daylight savings “fall back” event, where for example the clocks might go from 2:00am to 1:00am, then the same set of clock readings repeat themselves on the same day one hour apart. If the time zone is implicit, you cannot distinguish between datetimes in the first hour and datetimes in the second.

There is a related but subtler trap when it comes to daylight savings “fall forward” events where the clocks might go from 1:00am to 3:00am and skip all the 2:00am times. For the full explanation see the example Django application above. That application stores and then loads two such troublesome timestamps using different methods and then checks to see that the timestamps we stored and loaded matched the ones we saved. The application has all the details, but here are the results:

Screen Shot 2013-09-27 at 12.10.10 PM

In either case the solution, and the moral of the story, comes straight from the Zen of Python: explicit is better than implicit.

Dave PeticolasDave Peticolas is a software engineer at Counsyl. Prior to that he was a software engineer at Lucasfilm for ten years. He has contributed to numerous open source projects including GnuCash and Twisted, and is the author of a popular introduction to Twisted and asynchronous programming at He’ll be giving a talk  “Django, Postgres, Timezones, and You” at the Django Meetup in San Francisco on 10/9/13.


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