UC Berkeley’s decision to ask students for voluntary DNA swabs, instead of summer reading, has left some gleeful at the perspective of a homework-free summer.
However, the announcement of this unconventional activity at the university’s fall orientation has stirred up debate among geneticists, private watchdog organizations and UC Berkeley professors.
Mark Schlissel, UC Berkeley’s dean of biological sciences and professor of immunology, said the idea to send the 5,500 swabs to freshman and transfer students came from the theme chosen by the deans of the colleges, “personalized medicine.”
Schlissel said in the future, DNA tests will be used in medicine, just as blood tests are used today. With this in mind, the orientation theme was designed to promote student awareness of future medical and scientific advancements.
“[Physicians] will be able to tailor the kinds of health care you get, medicines you’ll be asked to take [and] diseases we should be on the lookout for based on your genetics,” Schlissel said. “We want our students to think about and to engage in a broad scholarly discussion about the impact of this new technology on our society.”
Once test results are delivered to students, lectures will be held with faculty members notable in the field of genetics, such as UC Berkeley genetics professor Jasper Rine. The lectures will discuss the meaning of student’s DNA results.
Not everyone is applauding this uncommon endeavor. Groups criticizing the new approach include the Center for Genetics and Society, a nonprofit public interest group based in Berkeley.
The organization’s project director on biotechnology accountability Jesse Reynolds said that although engaging students in controversial topics is a good thing, UC Berkeley’s current approach is not the right way to do it.
A main area of contention between the university and the center stems from students not having person to person counseling before they submit their DNA. Although, the main conflict for the Center for Genetics and Society has to do with the repercussions on a larger scale than the university.
“Our chief concern is that this endeavor serves to legitimize, and even promote, the controversial direct-to-consumer genetics industry,” Reynolds said.
To lessen the potential endorsement of any particular DNA testing company or direct-to-consumer DNA testing, UC Berkeley has replaced it’s orientation prize, which had originally been a product donated from a commercial DNA testing company, with money.
The program’s DNA testing will focus on three gene variations concerned with the digestion and absorption of lactose, folic acid and alcohol in the body. The three variants were chosen specifically because they do not correspond with any disease-related genes.
“The fact that they’re not testing for disease does not mean [the variants] are unproblematic,” Reynolds said. “For example, there is a gene related to the digestion of alcohol, one of the three being test. Would some student interpret the ability to better digest alcohol as a green light to heavier drinking?”
UC Berkeley said they will destroy all DNA received after use for this single purpose. They will also keep all genetic data anonymous.
Nonetheless, Reynolds points to past court cases to illustrate examples in which tissue or other bodily samples were extracted and used for other purposes than originally stated to the DNA donor.
In 1990 one such case occurred within the University of California system itself. John Moore underwent surgery at the UCLA Medical Center for hairy cell leukemia.
The case, Moore vs. Regents of the University of California, was brought to trial after Moore discovered that blood, bone marrow, various tissues and his spleen had been removed and used to patent a cell line, without Moore’s being previously informed of any of this.
Schlissel said that the differing of opinions on the student’s DNA testing is only natural and is an asset to the program, as it has stirred up much public recognition.
“I’m sure there are other comments [that have yet to be heard], both critical and supportive,” he said. “This is good. This is going to happen. Even the criticism is worth while because it provokes people to think about these critical issues.”
KELLEY REES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.