Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Berkeley Scheduled to Move Forward with Freshmen DNA Testing

Yesterday, Berkeley’s student newspaper The Daily Californian published on op-ed questioning Berkeley’s decision to move forward with its experiment designed collect DNA from consenting incoming freshman. The “Bring Your Genes to Cal” experiment originally made headlines over a month ago, when the New York Times and other major newspapers described the program and the corresponding polarized responses. In a few weeks, Berkeley is scheduled to send out information packets, informed consent forms, and buccal swab kits to the incoming freshman class to test for genetic variation related to their ability to process lactose, metabolize alcohol, and examine their levels of folic acid.

Mark Schlissel, MD, PhD, Professor of Immunology and Dean of Biological Sciences at Berkeley views the program as a lesson of how genetics and personalized medicine will impact students’ lives in the future. “We wanted to give students a sense of what’s coming, through genes that can provide them with useful information. I think it’s one of the best things we’ve done in years,” said Schlissel to the New York Times. Schlissel described how the campus will hold seminars and forums in the fall to discuss the significance of personal genetic information.

Despite Schlissel’s enthusiasm, the program is not without criticism. Jesse Reynolds, a policy analyst at the Center for Genetics and Society, acknowledged that educating incoming students on new genetic technologies can indeed constitute an important teachable experience, but raised several cautionary notes. First, Reynolds questioned whether students will freely consent to the test or whether they will feel subtle social pressure to submit a DNA sample. Second, and importantly, Reynolds asserted that by suggesting freshmen’s participation in this experiment, Berkeley is legitimizing or promoting the direct-to-consumer genetic testing industry.

As recent Berkeley alumnae Jillian Theil pointed out in her op-ed on Monday, the scientific validity of these tests when they are offered by direct-to-consumer (DTC) companies is still unknown. Earlier this month, the FDA stepped forward to assert that tests offered by companies such as 23andme and Navigenics are in fact invitro devices and fall under FDA review. But until the FDA and the companies offering DTC genetic tests work through the regulatory process, the current DTC genetic tests’ analytical and clinical validity remains uncertain.

Problematically, students will not fully learn about the complexities of federal regulation, genetic information, and how to contextually interpret it until after they receive their results during the fall discussion sessions on campus. Contrary to Schlissel’s categorization of these variants as innocuous information, bioethicist George Annas argued that a college student’s genetic variant relating to alcohol metabolism is far from harmless. “What if someone tests negative, and they don’t have the marker, so they think that means they can drink more? Like all genetic information, it’s potentially harmful,” asserted Annas in the New York Times.

Theil’s title hit the mark: proceed with caution, indeed. Students should know that similar tests offered in the marketplace are in the middle of potentially sweeping regulatory changes. Even if Berkeley’s tests are accurate, as Annas noted, students should interpret their genetic information carefully (should they choose to participate) and forgo basing any lifestyle decisions on their results.

--Katherine Drabiak-Syed