New freshmen headed to the University of California – Berkeley are being asked to send in, should they agree to it, a DNA sample on a cotton swab from inside their cheeks. The voluntary and confidential program for the class of 2014 will be the first mass genetic testing by a college or university.
The university is planning to analyze the samples for three genes that regulate the ability to metabolize alcohol, folates and lactose.
The study is trying to find out if the students with specific genetics are able to lead healthier lives by avoiding dairy products, drinking less or eating more vegetables.
The study was “designed to help students learn about personalized medicine and identify their own vulnerabilities,” said Jasper Rine, a UC Berkeley Professor of Genetics, who is leading the project.
The test results will be available on a website using a private barcode identification system.
“In the decade ahead, genetics is going to penetrate everyday medical practice,” said Mark Schlissel, Dean of Biology at UC Berkeley. “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.”
Berkeley will also offer a lecture by Rine about the three genetic markers and a contest where contributing students may enter to win further genetic testing from 23andMe, an unaffiliated company that privately offers DNA profiling.
But there has been widespread criticism for the project.
“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.”
The new field of genetic testing is not without controversy and has called into question numerous concerns about the ethics and privacy of health information. Yet despite the controversy, scientists, medical researchers and health professionals are hopeful that the future of genetic testing will hold key answers to numerous health questions and provide prventive measures and treatment options for numerous diseases.
UC Berkeley has always been a trailblazer when it comes to controversial and novel undertakings by professors and students alike. This genetic testing venture therefore seems quite fitting given the progressive-thinking character of the esteemed school.