UC Berkeley DNA testing draws ire

Under pressure from California public health officials, the professors behind University of California Berkeley’s controversial plan to genetically test incoming freshmen and transfer students said last week they will scale back the program so that participants will not receive personal results from their DNA samples.

In a story in the San Francisco Chronicle, the university raised the ire of genetic watchdog and privacy groups in May when it first launched “Bring Your Genes to Cal.” The voluntary program is believed to be the largest genetic testing project at a U.S. university.

The 5,500 incoming freshman and transfer students for the fall semester received testing kits in the mail and were asked to submit cheek swabs of their DNA to kick off a yearly exercise to involve the new students in a common educational experience centered on a theme. This year’s theme is personalized medicine.

Students were to receive personal information about three of their genes — those related to the ability to break down lactose, metabolize alcohol and absorb folates. The information was to be the basis of lectures and discussions on such topics as the ethical, social and legal interpretations of genetic testing.

But what was meant to be a group educational exercise turned into a lesson for the university on the politics and policy of medical testing.

Last Wednesday, officials from the state Department of Public Health said the university must use certified laboratories that meet specific standards, rather than the campus labs, if the school planned to release individualized test results, identified only by barcodes, to students.

“The California Department of Public Health made the determination that what we’re doing isn’t really actual research or education; that what we’re doing is providing medical information, conducting a test,” said Dr. Mark Schlissel, dean of biological sciences at UC Berkeley’s College of Letters & Science and a professor of molecular and cell biology.

The university still plans to analyze the DNA samples in a campus research lab, but students will not have access to their personal results. Instead, the test results will be presented in aggregate to students during lectures and panel discussions this fall.

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