UC Berkeley’s Student DNA Tests Assailed (Contra Costa Times 21/5/10)
A request for voluntary DNA samples from incoming UC Berkeley students has sparked quick criticism from privacy and genetic-science groups and even some corners of campus.
The university plans to send cotton swabs to about 5,500 incoming freshmen and transfer students, asking them to take cells from the insides of their cheeks and return the kits to the campus over the summer. A company — the school is soliciting bids — will analyze the DNA and send the anonymous results to university researchers.
Since announcing the plan this month, stunned Berkeley academics have been inundated with questions and criticism. Although some of the critics are misinformed about the experiment, others are raising important issues about privacy and ethics, said Mark Schlissel, the university’s biology dean and project’s proposer, along with biology professor Jasper Rine.
“The reaction took me a little by surprise,” Schlissel said. “The rapidity and energy behind the criticism have a validity we have to think about.”
The experiment will measure students’ tolerance to three everyday substances: folic acid, lactose and alcohol. Unlike a recent spate of companies marketing genetic-testing kits that have attracted criticism, the university will not be testing for diseases or any problems that cannot be easily solved through vitamins or dietary changes, Schlissel said.
Researchers also plan to destroy the DNA after the tests
are finished, he said, and only individual students will be able to associate a set of results with themselves.
But the safeguards have not dimmed the criticism. In a letter to the campus Wednesday, the president of the Massachusetts-based Council for Responsible Genetics noted that the federal government had forced companies to pull genetic-testing kits from stores because of claims that had not been validated.
“I urge you to abandon this DNA collection program and use this experience to have a universitywide discussion,” wrote the group’s president, Jeremy Gruber.
The university, which hopes to get at least 1,000 students to return the DNA kits, will own the data and may publish the results later, Schlissel said. Students under the age of 18 will need their parents’ consent before sending in the cheek cells.
The project is part of UC Berkeley’s annual On the Same Page program, in which all incoming students usually receive the same books or movies the summer before they arrive. The fall semester includes seminars and discussions about the works, which have included UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and movies by director Ang Lee.
The testing is expected to cost the university about $50,000, approximately the cost of more traditional On the Same Page projects.
Genetic testing gives the summer program a new twist on an old theme, said Alix Schwartz, who coordinates the projects.
“The whole reason for the On the Same Page program is to have an intellectual welcome to the campus,” she said. “We always try to stir up some discussion.”
Some critics said the university had not adequately thought through the consequences of that discussion. The school’s ownership of the data, anonymous or not, raises ethical issues, said Kimberly TallBear, a UC Berkeley professor of science, technology and environmental policy who has written about genetic testing.
“Given that we’re not sure what’s coming around the bend, I think it’s important for people who give consent to maintain control over the data,” she said. “I think (Berkeley researchers) need to be a little more circumspect about this.”
Although the university plans to hold firm on the DNA tests, it appears to be backing away from a related link to the Mountain View genetic-testing company 23andMe, which is being scrutinized by Congress because of its claims it can provide users with information on diseases and genetic traits. The school had planned to offer a free 23andMe genetic profile to the winner of an On the Same Page essay contest, but Schlissel and Schwartz said UC Berkeley was rethinking that prize because the ties to the company were distracting people from the aim of the summer program.
Universities are supposed to stimulate conversation about controversial topics, Schlissel said.
“None of us pretend to know the right answers on ethics or morality,” he said, “but talking about them is what Berkeley is all about.”