May 20, 2010 -- Incoming freshmen at the University of California-Berkeley who dread the thought of college exams will at least get to start with an easier test, if they choose; one that involves only a cotton swab and a quick rub on the inside of their cheeks.
The Class of 2014 will be asked to submit to a DNA test as part of a university-wide project. The project, which is the first example of mass genetic testing by a university, looks at three genes. One is related to the ability to break down alcohol, another may point to difficulty digesting dairy products and one regulates the body's ability to absorb the vitamins contained in green, leafy vegetables.
While they may lack the gravitas associated with other genetic tests that have garnered recent headlines, such as home tests designed to assess the risk for Alzheimer's, diabetes and breast cancer, people behind the latest effort say it should yield some enlightening results.
"This is an educational project, not a research project," said Jasper Rine, professor of genetics at the university and the faculty member who is leading the project.
"People tend to be frightened of genetic tests because, historically, they have told you things that are not good news, such as your propensity for certain diseases. This will tell you that alcohol may have a more adverse effect on you if you go out drinking, or it can explain why you may feel ill after you consume dairy products."
Rine said all of the 1,000 or so incoming freshmen at UC-Berkeley's College of Letters and Sciences will receive a swab in the mail in the summer. Participation is voluntary and once the samples are returned, they'll be sent out to a private laboratory for testing. Results will be available in about a week, although students will only get their results if they attend Rine's public lecture Sept. 13.
To protect student confidentiality, everyone who submits a sample will be given an anonymous bar code. No one at the university will know which student has which bar code.
DNA Education Gets Schooled
Still, at least one nonprofit, public interest group is calling for the university to suspend its project, saying it's an irresponsible way to teach students about genetic testing.
"This project could fuel common misperceptions about the importance of genetic information, and sets a bad precedent about the way genetic tests should be used," said Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Berkeley-based Center for Genetics and Society.
Dr. Mark Schlissel, dean of biological sciences and professor of immunology at UC-Berkeley, said he fully expected concerns about different aspects of the project and addressed them with the university's Committee for Protection of Human Subjects.
Among the concerns is whether genetic counseling will be available for the students once they learn their results. Schlissel said that because these genes chosen for the test are normal variants and extremely common in humans, there isn't any need for anyone to seek any immediate medical advice based on results of the tests. Plus, any student who has additional questions after the public lecture will be able to get it.
"They will be well-educated on what the implications of the data are," Rine said. "They will not be given this information in isolation."
Rine also acknowledged the possibility that some students will be found to have a gene that limits their ability to metabolize alcohol.
"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."