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Testing Decisions

As genomic information is seeping into clinical use and the commercial marketplace, one way to test out whether or not people are prepared to decide to have their genomes sequenced is to use college students as guinea pigs – offer them access to their genomic information and see how they respond.

A handful of universities have already launched programs that enable students to learn about their genomes, including the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford University, which caused consternation when they asked students to take DNA tests as part of a course, New Scientist notes.

The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai University has taken a different tack, launching a study into how 19 students decided whether or not to have their genomes sequenced as part of their genetics course.

The study, by health psychologist Saskia Sanderson, found that a brief course that discusses the sequencing technique and issues involved with it was useful.

Before taking the class, only nine students said they felt prepared to make an informed choice about the sequencing, but after the course 16 said they were ready.

"One of the most surprising findings was that all the students opted to analyze their own genomes in the end," Sanderson says. "We thought that as they learned more about the many limitations and risks of whole genome sequencing, they might lose interest and not be as keen to get the data as they initially were."

After taking the course, the students were provided access to genetic counseling but only two of them took up the offer, Sanderson says.

Although the students felt they were prepared to make informed decisions, asks George Washington University bioethicist Shawneequa Callier, there other questions to ask.

"Are universities checking to make sure that students have a support network at home to help them cope with bad news?" Callier asks. "And are the students really prepared to assess a risk that might not become important to them until long after the course is over?"