Freshman Genetic Testing Program Draws Criticism

Requesting Samples of DNA From Freshmen Raises Privacy Concerns, Critics of Program Say

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UC Berkeley has found itself in the center of a genetics war after it announced last week that its "On the Same Page" program would be asking many incoming freshmen to submit DNA samples for testing.

Organizations such as the Berkeley-based Center for Genetics and Society are concerned that researchers could begin to utilize students' DNA samples without properly consulting them ahead of time, saying there is serious potential for misuse or abuse as the tests contain untapped valuable genetic information.

However, the campus College of Letters and Science, which conducts the "On the Same Page" program, has said the project is only meant to create a dialogue among students about changing health care technology and once the DNA has been analyzed, all samples will be destroyed.

Jesse Reynolds, project director on biotechnology accountability at the center, said that direct-to-consumer genetic testing has been controversial since its debut in fall 2007. There is concern about how the project's information will be obtained and how consumers such as incoming freshmen would be able to properly understand the information gene tests can provide, he said.

"There is an imbalance of information and power here," he said. "In general, the young men and women who come to Cal place a great amount of respect and trust in the institution. I think this might amount to an abuse of that. There is a great deal of concern about the fate of the samples and data. Unplanned things can happen."

The college will be sending individualized genetic testing kits to freshmen students who choose to participate in the project.

The college has emphasized that total anonymity will be used in conducting this project. Students' names are not released, and students are only given a barcode with their test kit that they can later use to match their DNA results.

For students who are under age 18, the student and their parent must sign a consent form allowing the student to participate in the program.

Mark Schlissel, campus dean of biological sciences, said the two barcode stickers that the students are given have completely random numbers, ensuring anonymity on behalf of the student.

"It almost doesn't matter if it sends a controversial message," he said "This is meant to provoke discussion about a new medical technology that will have an impact in health care technology, and we want students to join us in discussing issues that will become more prevalent in this new age of health care."

The project will test for three genetic markers in a student's DNA - the ability to digest lactose, the retention of folic acid and the digestive rate of alcohol.

Though no lab has been selected to conduct the DNA analyses, Schlissel said the college has sent out bids to a number of commercial DNA testing labs. Each lab is equipped to conduct the DNA tests, and he said the college is hoping they will find a lab that offers the best price with the highest quality of performance.

Incoming freshman Eugene Lau from Oakland said he is not concerned with privacy because the project is geared toward research.

"Honestly, I feel that people are overreacting with this situation, but then again, I'm from a generation where handing out information isn't as big of a deal as it has been in the past," he said. "I'm already 18, so this is my decision as to whether or not I participate, and I'm not too concerned with my genetic privacy."

Tags: COLLEGE OF LETTERS AND SCIENCE, ON THE SAME PAGE PROGRAM, DNA TESTING


Contact Katie Nelson at [email protected]



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