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Berkeley's request for students' DNA draws fire

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Berkeley's request for students' DNA draws fire

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A genetics group is criticizing Berkeley for asking incoming students to provide DNA samples to the university.

The school's Letters & Science program is including a cotton swab in welcoming kits to incoming freshman and transfer students to provide an anonymous sample of their genetic material.

"This is a spectacular opportunity for our students," said Mark Schlissel, dean of Biological Sciences, according to the website for the University of California, Berkeley. "The potential impact of personalized medicine will require that all educated citizens contribute to the discussion of how we acquire and use the most personal of all information – one's genetic legacy."

But the Center for Genetics and Society, a Berkeley-based public interest organization, says the Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve such informal genetic tests.

"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 18-year-olds?” asked policy analyst Jesse Reynolds, in a statement on the center's website.

Officials at the center don't question the value of genetic testing and analysis, just this particular venue.

“Catalyzing discussion and debate about the future of genetic technology is a wonderful idea,” said Marcy Darnovsky, the center's associate executive director. “But 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.”

The university has tried to allay fears of DNA samples falling into the wrong hands.

Each individual student will possess the sole means of recognizing his or her own data--even the scientists will have no way to identify whose genes are whose--and all genetic material will be incinerated after the experiment has been run. These and other safeguards have been approved by the campus Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects.

But no information is completely safe, Reynolds said.

“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."

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