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Genetics Think Tank Urges UCal to Suspend Gene Tests for Students

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Center for Genetics and Society has called for the University of California, Berkeley, to drop a new policy that would allow the school to ask new students to provide DNA samples for genetic analysis.

Under the voluntary genetic testing program, incoming freshman and transfer students would be tested for three genes that are involved in the metabolization of alcohol, lactose, and folates, according to a May 18 article in The New York Times.

The testing would focus on these genes because they may enable students to make individual health decisions about alcohol and dairy consumption and about how much leafy green vegetables they eat.

The genetic testing effort is part of UC Berkeley's "On The Same Page" program and is intended to introduce incoming students to personalized medicine, according to a posting on the website of UC Berkeley's College of Letters and Sciences.

The CGS, which is located in Berkeley, said on Wednesday that direct-to-consumer genetic tests are "controversial" and noted that such tests are under review by the medical profession, scientists, and the US Government.

"Just last week, the largest drugstore chain in the country halted plans to retail a similar product after receiving a stern letter from the US Food and Drug Administration," Jesse Reynolds, a policy analyst at the center, said in a statement.

The drug store chains Walgreen's and CVS put on hold their plans to offer Pathway Genomics' tests through their stores after the FDA's Office of In Vitro Diagnostics began questioning whether the tests can live up to their claims.

Congress has also gotten involved, with the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce announcing that it is investigating direct-to-consumer genomic companies. As part of that investigation, the committee has sent letters to three firms — Pathway Genomics, 23andMe, and Navigenics.

"If selling genetic tests directly to consumers is a problem in the eyes of federal regulators, how can the university justify pushing them on thousands of eighteen-year-olds?" Reynolds said.

Reynolds said that regulators and some in the biomedical science and clinical communities also are concerned that DTC testing can exaggerate the importance of genes to behaviors and traits that are also affected by other social and environmental factors.

"Catalyzing discussion and debate about the future of genetic technology is a wonderful idea," said CGS Associate Executive Director Marcy Darnovsky, adding that "this is the wrong way to do it.

"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. In effect, it puts the university's seal of approval on products that have not been – and may never be – approved by federal regulators," she said.

CGS also takes issue with Berkeley's plan to sponsor a contest that will enable some students to win other DNA testing from the California-based consumer genomics firm 23andMe.

"This program may be good for the direct-to-consumer genetics industry, but it is an abuse of the trust that thousands of young students should be able to place in the university they've chosen," Reynolds said.