UC Berkeley asks students for DNA samples, draws criticism

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UC Berkeley is asking students to voluntarily give them DNA samples for part of its annual On the Same Page orientation activity

In a move that was intended to spark a discussion, UC Berkeley is asking 5,500 new and transfer students to volunteer some of their DNA to be tested for reactions to lactose, folic acid and alcohol — and they think that about 1,000 will respond.

Each year, the University of California Berkeley chooses a topic to welcome its new students to campus and “provoke an intellectual discussion about an important topic.” This year, the university chose personalized medicine, which has created some controversy among genetics researchers and ethicists.

Patt Morrison spoke today to Mark Schlissel, dean of the biological sciences department at UC Berkeley, to discuss the goal of this year’s program.

According to Schlissel, students are usually sent a book to read over the summer in preparation for discussion, but this year they decided to send students swabs to rub against their cheeks to collect samples of their DNA.

The swabs, strictly anonymously and voluntarily, would then be returned to Berkeley in the mail and tested for reactions to lactose, folic acid, and alcohol. Students would be able to get the results online using a barcode number that only they had access to.

“We came up with the idea collectively of actually involving them in a personalized medicine test on a purely voluntary basis to hopefully better engage them in the whole wealth of issues surrounding this new emerging human genetics,” Schlissel said.

But many are opposed to the idea, including Jesse Reynolds, director of the Project on Biotechnology in the Public Interest at the Center for Genetics and Society, who also spoke to Patt Morrison regarding the university’s plans.

“I’m glad that the school wants to engage students in controversial issues, but there’s a right and a wrong way to do it, and I think this is the wrong way,” Reynolds said. “It only serves to legitimize and even promote a controversial industry.

According to Reynolds, just a week before Berkeley announced this year’s program, the US Food and Drug Administration halted the retail of such tests.

Schlissel disagreed, arguing that the tests were in no way endorsing or legitimizing any company’s products. “I view it as an educational exercise so that we actually get this in the open and discuss it in a scholarly, respectful way,” Schlissel said.

Reynolds also pointed out that most of the new students are young, impressionable and would not be adequately informed about the issue before they were asked to participate.

“If anything, the tests should be offered later on when I think a true sense of voluntary, informed consent might be possible after the students are more educated about the potential drawbacks,” he said.

Berkeley plans to go forward with the program.

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