This Fall, Don’t Forget Your DNA on Your Way to College

Genetic Testing Invades Schools

Thanks to new programs at UC-Berkeley and Stanford University, some students around the country have a new item to add to their back to school lists this fall–DNA samples.

While the two programs are set up differently, both are intended to directly engage students in learning about personalized medicine and personal genomics by studying and analyzing their own DNA. Earlier this month Berkeley began mailing saliva sample kits to about 5,500 incoming freshman and transfer students as part of an optional orientation program that will let the students learn about their own DNA and discuss findings when they arrive at campus.

Meanwhile, Stanford is in the midst of a first-time summer course offered to medical and graduate students that allows them to get their DNA sequenced and tested by Navigenics or 23andMe.  The two personal genomics companies that have become more widely recognized after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration launched an investigation into the safety and accuracy of the tests and the health information they provide.

Genetic testing has come a long way since the Human Genome Project was completed a decade ago. Though the Genome projects’ effects on health care have yet to fully develop, the actual procedures and technologies are now cheaper and easier than ever before, a trend that appears to have happened so fast that the ethics and laws surrounding those technologies needs to catch up.

On the surface, the Berkeley program is merely an alternative to the usual orientation assignment–rather than have everyone read the same book and discuss it as a class, incoming students will have the option to send in their saliva in a testing kit to get their own DNA samples and learn whether or not they have a gene for three different traits–how the body metabolizes alcohol, folic acid (vitamin B9), lactose.

But Berkeley’s program is more than an attempt to create class unity during orientation–it is the first time ever that genetic testing is being offered to a mass group of people outside the confines of scientific research or a hospital setting. Of course, the analyses will be scientific, but the Berkeley professors aren’t trying to publish new findings–rather, they are trying to spread awareness and knowledge of personal genomics and personalized medicine. Assuming things go relatively smoothly, you can imagine other universities will want to follow suit, aiming to show they are on top of what is happening at the forefront of genetics–that is of course, unless state or federal legislation prevents it from happening.

Stanford is already on top of that, though their program is being offered to a smaller and more specific group. Because they are offering the course to medical and graduate students only, Stanford is focused more on providing better training for our nation’s future physicians and counselors so that in the future–when genetic testing is more ubiquitous–they will be ready to provide patients with the most accurate interpretations possible.

Of course, none of this would be possible if it weren’t for vast improvements in technology. Ten years ago it cost in the millions of dollars to do Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS), and a single genome took years to complete. Today, the company Complete Genomics has brought that cost down to $5,000, and they can do it within a couple weeks.

Companies like Navigenics and 23andMe, however, are taking a different approach. Instead of sequencing the entire genome of a person, they are pinpointing specific genetic markers–called single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs (pronounced “snips”)–related to disease susceptibility, drug response, or traits related to appearance. For as little as $300, you can find out, say, your risk of certain cancers, or a potentially harmful reaction you might have to a certain drug, within a matter of days.

Because of unknown gene interactions, the predictability of disease and other traits based on individual SNPs is far from perfect, but the only way we can get there is by gathering more genetic information, testing more people, and conducting thorough analyses and comparisons. Until now, gathering genetic information on a large scale has largely been contained to a few highly-controlled studies, but the Berkeley program is breaking that precedent.

As such, Berkeley and Stanford appear to be pushing forward a new movement in the study of human genomics, Berkeley by pushing the boundaries of who and how many people can be tested, and Stanford by finding new and potentially better ways to train our future doctors. As more people are tested and their data logged and analyzed, we will understand the science better. Doctors will be able to make more accurate predictions based on genetic data. It’s more or less a positive feedback loop that is rolling us into a potentially bright future for health care, a future in which nearly anyone can learn their genetic predispositions and alter their lifestyle choices accordingly.

Of course, it will be a while before this all becomes valid–the legal and ethical issues have yet to be sorted out, and we are still far from knowing the function of each gene. But the Berkeley and Stanford programs are undoubtedly important steps towards the future.

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I enjoy all types of futurology. I especially enjoy staying up to date with the latest advancements in machine learning and artificial intelligence. You can usually find me roaming the depths of the internet.