Berkeley Offers Free DNA Testing to Students

"If our experimentation helps them temper their experimentation with alcohol, then perhaps that's a good thing," he said.

Genetic experts not involved with the project agreed that it could help teach the students involved a valuable lesson about such tests.

"Genetic testing isn't all about diseases; it's about beneficial traits as well," said Dr. Harry Ostrer, professor and director of the Human Genetics Program at the NYU Langone Medical Center. "People are certainly going to want to know about them."

Ostrer added that advances in genetics make studies similar to the project at UC-Berkeley valuable. "Large-scale genetic testing is going to be an important part of our lives going forward," he said. "People are having their entire genomes sequenced."

Still, Ostrer said he is unsure of how enlightening the results will be. He said that having a low tolerance for alcohol or having trouble digesting dairy products should be obvious from certain bodily reactions, such as blushing after you drink alcohol or feeling sick after your drink milk.

There are no plans to do any sort of follow-up with the students after the public lecture. Despite that, Rine and Schlissel hope there will be some lasting impact.

"It's empowering information they can use to promote their well-being," Rine said.

Schlissel said the university has no plans to do another project like this one in the future. And the test, as interesting as the results could be to those involved, will never find its way into a study or publication.

Nevertheless, Ostrer said that despite any criticism of the project's immediate practical impact, the undertaking could have much broader implications.

"If we criticize all genetic research studies, then we won't have genetic advances," he said.

The Dangers of Direct-to-Consumer

Meanwhile, the Center for Genetics and Society compares the project to the sale of genetic tests directly to consumers, a practice that Walgreens drug stores halted after the Food and Drug Administration expressed concerns about the safety and accuracy of the test kits the stores had planned to sell.

"In effect, it puts the university's seal of approval on products that have not been, and may never be, approved by federal regulators," Darnovsky added.

And Michael Watson, executive director of the American College of Medical Genetics, said when it comes to direct-to-consumer genetic testing, his group urges people to visit a qualified health professional who can inform consumers about what's involved in genetic testing and what the results could mean.

Even though Schlissel and the Berkeley team believe that genetic counseling isn't necessary because the genes in question are innocuous, Watson isn't so sure.

"It's not entirely clear that there's no support needed," he said.

He also agreed that there is a question about whether the project is an appropriate way to educate students about genetic testing because it could end up trivializing its importance.

Despite his concerns about the study protocol, he supports the university's effort to educate students.

"It's a very interesting approach to educating them," he said, "as long as appropriate measures are taken."

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