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UC Berkeley Offers DNA Testing to Incoming Freshmen; Does This Make Sense?

Posted May 20 2010 12:00am

For some reason, the news about genomic testing keeps getting stranger and stranger. I have the impression that this does not bode well for the future of such testing. In a recent note, I discussed how the retail drug store chain Walgreens was going to sell specimen collection kits that enable genomic tests from Pathway Genomics (see: Walgreens to Offer Genomic Test Collection Kits from Pathway to Customers ). Within 24 hours and as noted in my two updates to the note, Walgreens had reversed its decision to offer over-the-counter genomic testing. Now comes the news the UC Berkeley will offer, on a voluntary basis, DNA testing to incoming freshmen (see: College Bound, DNA Swab in Hand ). Here is an excerpt from the article:

Instead of the usual required summer-reading book, this year’s incoming freshmen at the University of California, Berkeley, will get something quite different: a cotton swab on which they can, if they choose, send in a DNA sample. The university said it would analyze the samples, from inside students’ cheeks, for three genes that help regulate the ability to metabolize alcohol, lactose and folates.Those genes were chosen not because they indicate serious health risks but because students with certain genetic markers may be able to lead healthier lives by drinking less, avoiding dairy products or eating more leafy green vegetables. Berkeley’s program for the class of 2014 is the first mass genetic testing by a university. Jasper Rine, the professor of genetics who is leading the project, said it was designed to help students learn about personalized medicine and identify their own vulnerabilities....The testing will be voluntary and confidential, with no one at Berkeley knowing which sample comes from which student....But some bioethicists say the whole idea of genetic testing outside a medical setting is troubling.“It’s a bad precedent to set up mass testing without some sort of counseling support,” said [a bioethicist]. “I’d rather people get their results in a medical setting, where they can ask questions about the error rate or the chances of passing it on to their children, and not just see it posted on some Web site.” [A university spokesperson] said that he understood the concern about counseling but that he believed it applied mostly to testing for genetic diseases, not necessarily the relatively innocuous gene variants that Berkeley is looking for....Berkeley has not yet chosen a company to analyze the DNA samples....Estimates are $35,000 to $40,000 per 1,000 samples.

So here's what I take away from this story. UC Berkeley is planning to offer testing for genetic defects relating to the metabolism of alcohol, lactose, and folate to incoming freshmen. These genetic variants are described by a university spokesperson as relatively innocuous and unrelated to the identification of serious diseases. Estimated costs for the program will run about $35,000 to $40,000 per 1,000 samples.The goal of the program is to foster better eating habits among the students including the consumption of more leafy vegetables. A medical ethicist commented, in relation to the program, about the emotional trauma that could be incurred upon learning of one's inability to digest spinach outside of a calm, nurturing counseling environment.

I personally can only imagine the angst that would occur when an 18-year-old student learns on the web that he is lactose intolerant and must avoid milk whenever possible. In response, I might turn to healthier beverages like beer. I am also wondering if the money allocated to this genomic testing program would be better spent on health eduction programs relating to sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia , the long-term effects of binge drinking , or the perils of fast food addition . This whole project sounds to me like it was cooked up in the mind of a UC Berkeley professor with an interest in genetics and who views the entire freshman class as potential lab rats.

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