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Video produced by: Fahiemah Al-Ali & Connie Karambelas

Chicago college students talk about screening their DNA.

Berkeley students swab DNA for genetic answers

by Fahiemah Al-Ali and Connie Karambelas
May 25, 2010


National Institutes of Health

Sampling DNA.

Incoming freshmen at the University of California, Berkeley can add one more item to their back-to-school supply list this summer – a screening test to look at their ability to metabolize alcohol, dairy products and those healthy greens. 

It won’t cost students a dime - just some DNA.

Their brush with nutritional genomics can give them insights into making healthier choices about drinking, dairy and vegetables in their diets.

Members of Berkeley’s 2014 class will be mailed cotton swabs to collect cheek samples this fall as part of a voluntary mass genetic testing initiative – the first ever of its kind at a university.

The project is designed to engage students in “a discussion of both science behind personalized medicine and the societal implications of this new source of personal information,” said Mark Schlissel, dean of biological sciences at Berkeley.

Headed by Jasper Rine, professor of genetics and genomics and development at Berkeley, the project is testing for three individual genetic markers related to the metabolism of alcohol, lactose and folates.

Nutritional genomics determines whether dietary practices can be more accurately tailored to an individual’s genes and personal needs.

Students who test positive for any of the genetic markers can request guidance on how to remedy the health issue at hand – whether it’s increasing their intake of fruits and vegetables or managing their tolerance to dairy consumption  and the amount of alcohol they can drink.

Students who choose to participate will be assigned a bar code for anonymity, one that goes on the DNA sample, and another to keep, said Schlissel.

“Every student that returns the swab will have access to their results. They only have to look them up on a website based on a bar code that only they know,” said Schlissel.

The testing lab will destroy all of the genomic material, said Alix Schwartz, director of academic planning at Berkeley’s college of letters and science.

According to Berkeley’s website, anyone who participates will be able to gain insight from the results of the test – whether they come back positive or negative.

While Berkeley is often on the forefront of science and technology, some experts say that testing without the guidance of genetic counselors is a step in the wrong direction.

“I think at this point in time, even if they [Berkeley] want to introduce the students to the idea that genetic testing is coming … the way to do it is to insist that at least counseling with a human being be a mandatory part of any testing if somebody wants it,” said Arthur Caplan, director for the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

However, Schlissel said students would have the opportunity to discuss the genetic markers in detail during a public lecture that will take place prior to the release of their results on Sept. 13.

Additionally, when students go online to obtain their genetic results, their information will be accompanied by a description of the genetic markers and what the results mean, he said.

Still, ethicists and genetic counselors think one-on-one guidance prior to and throughout the genetic testing process is key in interpreting and applying the nutritional analyses.

“I think you have to set this up as policy and then discuss why you’re doing it, not get into these considerations afterwards,” Caplan said.

While Caplan applauds Berkeley’s idea of taking advantage of the emergence of personalized medicine and genetic testing, he notes that individuals shouldn’t sideline the possibility of misinterpreting the results.

“If you find that ‘hey I can drink and I’m not likely to get headaches or dry mouth,’ … well, I think that’s kind of controversial,” Caplan said.

“You don’t want people reading the tests the wrong way.”

The solution?

Ask questions, said Cathy Wicklund, director of the graduate program in genetic counseling at Northwestern University.

Students should question the accuracy and validity of the results, she said, although because the university has not yet chosen a DNA testing company, it’s difficult to speculate on the margin of error.

“With every genetic test, you would want to know – not even so much an error rate – that there are limitations to genetic tests,” Wicklund said.

But while nutritional genomics may be the trend of the future, “There’s a fine line we walk,” said Jessica Marie El-Assaad, a holistic nutrition practitioner and owner and president at Chicago-based Complete Health Education and Wellness.

El-Assaad noted that individuals who seek the help of a nutritionist receive instruction on how to proactively integrate foods properly into their diet.

“Just because you find something out of a test doesn’t mean you know what to do with it or how to do it helpfully,” she said.

While the testing process remains unclear given that Berkeley hasn’t chosen which laboratory will conduct the genetic analysis, the premise behind understanding the basic science is similar.

“There are changes in the gene that might actually affect the way the enzyme metabolizes a certain element,” said Wicklund.