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    Update on University of California Berkeley’s Proposal to Ask Freshmen for DNA

    In May, it was revealed that the University of California at Berkeley was asking incoming freshmen to voluntarily (and confidentially) submit DNA samples so that it can check “for three genes that help regulate the ability to metabolize alcohol, lactose and folates” because “students with certain genetic markers may be able to lead healthier lives by drinking less, avoiding dairy products or eating more leafy green vegetables.” At the time, I said that I was glad that the program was voluntary and confidential, but it was still troubling because there are easier and less-invasive ways to determine if someone is allergic or intolerant of alcohol, lactose or folates. Individual genetic data is not needed to teach students about responsible drinking or healthy diets. Genetic testing seems unnecessary, and it is too easy to see how quickly this could lead to mission creep. “Why don’t we test for something else, since we already have the data?” I noted several recent controversies over the unknowing use of individuals’ DNA reasons beyond what was stated when the samples were taken.

    Now, the Los Angeles Times reports that Berkeley is changing its DNA collection program, though it still is requesting genetic data from incoming freshmen and transfer students.

    In response to a state Public Health Department ruling on how DNA samples should be handled, UC Berkeley scientists reluctantly abandoned the idea to have freshmen and transfer students individually and confidentially learn about three of their own genetic traits. Instead, only collective results for all the 1,000 or so participants will be available and discussed at the orientation seminars next month.

    Mark Schlissel, UC Berkeley’s dean of biological sciences and an architect of the DNA program, said he disagreed with the state Department of Public Health’s ruling that the genetic testing required advance approval from physicians and should be done only by specially-licensed clinical labs, not by university technicians. The campus could not find labs willing to do the work and probably could not afford it anyway, Schlissel said. He also contended that the project deserved an exemption from those rules because it was an educational exercise. […]

    Berkeley officials contend that the test results would not be medically significant. But the program was controversial with privacy advocates and ethicists complaining that it presented an unprecedented and disturbing use of genetic data by a university. […]

    The retreat came two days after the state Assembly Committee on Higher Education held a hearing about the DNA testing. Since the plan was first unveiled in May, critics have been expressing fears that students felt unspoken coercion to participate, and that the saliva samples and resulting personal information were not properly protected. UC Berkeley officials, however, insisted the data would remain confidential.

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