This summer, students at the University of California, Berkeley, will be asked to swab the inside of their cheeks and experience personalized medicine for themselves—but this gigantic and unprecedented experiment is not without its critics.
When I arrived at Cal in August 1999, I registered for classes over the telephone and the coolest thing in my welcome package was… completely forgettable. This year incoming freshmen and transfer students in the College of Letters and Science—which advises three-quarters of the university’s 25,000 undergrads—will notice a cotton swab in their welcome package.
The low-tech device is courtesy of the college’s “On the Same Page” program, which usually asks new students to read a new book or watch a film that would give them something to talk about for the rest of the year. This year’s topic is contemporary, interdisciplinary, and “will touch all our lives in some way”, says Alix Schwartz, director of undergrad academic planning (L&S News).
“Science is moving so fast right now,” Schwartz adds (Inside Higher Ed). “If we assigned them a book, it would be out-of-date by the time they read it.”
Students can choose to return a sample of their cells to be analyzed for three genes that help regulate the ability to absorb folic acid, tolerate lactose, and metabolize alcohol—all useful for the daily lives of college goers. Confidentially is maintained through the use of two barcode labels, one to affix on the sample and the other to keep and use to look up results once they’re posted on a website. Based on the results, students can take easy steps like eating more spinach or avoiding yoghurt. “The history of medical genetics has been the history of finding bad things,” says Jasper Rine, professor of genetics, genomics and development (NYT). “But in the future, I think nutritional genomics is probably going to be the sweet spot.”
The idea isn’t to identify dangerous genes, but to point out traits that can be managed through behaviour. “We want to get people to appreciate that there are things you can do that enhance your health based on the genes you have,” Rine says (Inside Higher Ed). “There are concrete, actionable, specific steps that do enhance quality of life. This is the message of the post-genomic era.” Students will also get the chance to enter poems, music, or other creations to compete for a more complete analysis by personal genomics company 23andMe.
This “genetic legacy” assignment has already proved to be controversial. The Center for Genetics and Society, a Berkeley-based public interest organization, is calling for a suspension of the project. The centre argues that direct-to-consumer genetic tests could exaggerate the importance of genes to behaviours that are shaped by social and environmental factors and that this kind of biotechnology should best be left to medical professionals.
“Just last week, the largest drugstore chain in the country halted plans to retail a similar product after receiving a stern letter from the US Food and Drug Administration,” says Jesse Reynolds with the centre (press release). “If selling genetic tests directly to consumers is a problem in the eyes of federal regulators, how can the university justify pushing them on thousands of eighteen-year-olds?”
Image: C-A-L-I-FOR–NIA, Janet Fang