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Tufts University Studies Personalized Medicine in the Classroom

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A faculty group at Tufts University has set out to kick-start a discussion on the best ways to teach medical school students about personal genomics. In a January Genetics in Medicine paper, the team published the results of a 16-month study that looked at ways to implement a personal genetics component into medical school curricula — including integrating students' own genomes for a practical context within which they can learn about clinical issues associated with personal genetic testing. According to Diana Bianchi, professor of pediatrics, obstetrics, and gynecology at Tufts, there was considerable controversy within the committee heading up the study over whether students would benefit from studying their own genomes.

"The argument for personal genomic testing in this context is that if you had the experience of a patient looking at his or her own genome, you would be very involved in the interpretation," Bianchi says. "The other side of the debate was, of course, the potentially harmful consequences of personal testing, because initially there was no helping students dealing with the information that might come out of it."

The study also looked at several ways to expand medical trainees' education to include exposure to genetics, genomics, genome-wide association studies, and sequencing using anonymous or publicly accessible genomes. The study found that if a curriculum included personalized genetic testing, a robust plan would have to be put in place not only to protect the privacy of students, but also to follow up on abnormal test results for the students and their families.

"We did a pre-educational survey and then a post-survey because we really wanted to know how students would feel about finding out information about their own genomes, and we're in the process of analyzing that," Bianchi says. "The medical follow-up plan for the students still needs to be ironed out, of course. … We also found that very few medical schools actually have personalized genomic content in their curriculum right now despite the fact that patients are now going directly to these personal genomics companies to have their genome analyzed, so it's still the frontier out there."

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