Critics Confront Berkeley at Genetic Testing Hearing

by jeeg 12. August 2010 05:33

Two UC Berkeley professors Tuesday defended a controversial plan to perform genetic testing on incoming freshmen during a legislative hearing that also featured testimony from privacy experts and bioethicists blasting the plan.

Lawmakers asked questions about the Bring Your Genes to Cal project, but ultimately have no authority over the University of California. Whether the project moves forward likely depends on the outcome of a meeting today between UC Berkeley officials and representatives of the state Department of Public Health, campus spokesman Robert Sanders said in an interview after the meeting.

If the state Department of Public Health rules that UC Berkeley's project amounts to medical testing, the university would have to have students' saliva tested in a specially designated laboratory. The university argues that it is performing research – not medical tests – which would allow testing at a greater variety of labs.

Because of the relatively small scope of the tests, UC Berkeley hasn't been able to find the specific type of lab willing to do the tests if they are deemed medical diagnosis, Sanders said. The campus may end up not testing the saliva samples it has gathered, he said, or may test them but not give the results to students. A decision will be made later this week.

Either of those possibilities would be a big change from UC Berkeley's plan. Over the summer, the university sent 5,000 incoming students a DNA test kit and asked them to spit in a tube and send it back to the school. Participation was optional and anonymous. Each saliva sample was labeled with a bar code number that only the student knew.

Fewer than 400 students have returned their samples, Mark Schlissel, dean of biological sciences, told members of the Assembly Higher Education Committee.

The exercise is part of an orientation project designed to introduce new students to Berkeley's intellectual rigor. Each year the college chooses a theme that new students and faculty explore from various perspectives. This year's theme is personalized medicine. Throughout the year, Schlissel said, students will learn about the scientific, legal and ethical issues involved in genetic testing.

The plan was to test the saliva samples for three genes – those involved in breaking down lactose, metabolizing alcohol and absorbing folic acid. Genetics professor Jasper Rine testified that the goal was to engage students with an intellectual concept that had personal relevance.

Detractors said the plan was poorly thought out and rife with potential privacy violations and confusion for students.

Hank Greely, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford, raised concerns that teenage students would misinterpret findings about themselves.

Jeremy Gruber, president of the Council for Responsible Genetics, said Berkeley freshmen could feel pressured to participate because of the way the test material was presented. The consent form that participating students had to sign listed the benefits of doing the genetic test, he said, but not the risks.

"The consent form is pure marketing," Gruber said.


By Laurel Rosenhall (originally published in the Sacramento Bee 8/11/10)


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