University backs down over student genetic testing

13 August 2010

Plans to provide free genome scans to new students at the University of California, Berkeley (see previous news) have been modified following intervention from US regulators. 
The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) reportedly found that if students received individual results from the scans, they would have to be treated as medical diagnostic tests, even though the gene variants to be analysed related to alcohol, lactose and folate metabolism as opposed to specific disease risks, and therefore must comply with state and federal regulations relating to medical diagnostics.

The university has said that it will continue with the programme, which was intended to provoke discussion, but provide collective, pooled findings as opposed to individual results, in compliance with the regulatory edict (see press release). A university facility will be used to analyse the DNA samples.

Announcing that they would comply with the CDPH ruling, programme lead and Dean of Biological Sciences Mark Schlissel nevertheless struck a defiant note, saying: "We believe this is a flawed reading of the statute that raises questions about who has control over teaching at the university, and in the broader sense, who has control over information about our own genes" (see AP news)

Others have welcomed the decision; medical anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes reportedly said that the distinction between whether the testing was for educational or medical purposes had not been made sufficiently clear, with the student invitations to participate having included a ‘medical subjects’ bill of rights’ (see Nature blog).

If, however, the testing programme was conceived primarily or partly  for promotional purposes, it has been highly successful in attracting attention. 

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