UC Berkeley DNA testing goes before state committee

Before they could start to test students’ DNA, leaders of UC Berkeley’s “On the Same Page: Bring Your Genes to Cal” program were put to the test at a legislative hearing in Sacramento on Tuesday.

The program asks for voluntary DNA samples from incoming freshmen, which will then be analyzed as part of an orientation program meant to unite students under a shared academic experience. But the plan has been polarizing from the outset, drawing fire from bioethicists and watchdog groups. Controversy surrounding the program was covered here on Berkeleyside and on The New York Times Bay Area blog in May.

Groups that opposed the genetic testing, as well as the those overseeing the program, UC Berkeley Dean of Biological Sciences Mark Schlissel and genetics Professor Jasper Rine, were given an opportunity to explain their case to the California State Committee on Higher Education Tuesday.

The hearing was meant “to ensure that UC Berkeley is doing everything legally required and ethically appropriate where student consent, patient privacy, and general program transparency are concerned,” according to a press release from the committee’s chair, Assemblyman Marty Block.

Concerns raised about the testing program were to focus on bioethical and legal issues, as well as students’ right to privacy, The Daily Cal reported Monday. The full story can be found here.

Meanwhile, Schlissel and Rine argued that the program was educational, included a valid consent form and would not violate students’ privacy (the testing is voluntary and anonymous). All DNA samples would be destroyed immediately after the testing, Dr. Schlissel said in an email.

The hearing was informational, and no action was taken to shut the program down, said Block’s spokesperson, Mike Naple.

Today, the committee is also discussing a bill by its vice chair, Assemblyman Chris Norby, which seeks to bar California State University campuses from subjecting students to genetic testing, while requesting that the University of California follow suit.

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  • Neat: more fightin’ words from the Council for Responsible Genomics:

    In response to concerns regarding the program, estimated to cost around $50,000, it was reported in multiple publications that the program would be covered by an anonymous, private donor. A request by CRG for 700-U forms for the “Bring Your Genes to Cal” program, which must be disclosed under California law, was denied by the university with the written explanation that no private donor had yet been secured. This constitutes a clear reversal from statements previously describing funding for the program. If no private funding is secured, it becomes likely that taxpayer funds will have to be used to pay for the program.

    Berkeley also later announced that it would perform the actual testing at its School of Public Health. Inquiries by CRG with the California Department of Health have revealed that the School of Public Health is not licensed to perform this kind of clinical laboratory testing under California law. Furthermore, according to the California Department of Health, Professor Jasper Rine is not a medical doctor licensed to order and perform clinical laboratory tests as required by the Department. Therefore, as currently described, the program may be in violation of California’s public health laws and regulations.

    Finally, CRG has discovered that Jasper Rine received a four year grant for $1 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 2006 to revamp undergraduate biology curriculum. As part of this initiative, he developed three new modules for introductory biology, including a laboratory experiment whereby students would analyze their own mitochondrial DNA and compare it to the National Genographic Project – an experiment strikingly similar to “Bring Your Genes to Cal.” No details of this research and its possible relationship to the “Bring Your Genes to Cal” program have been released to students or the taxpaying public.

    Other criticisms of the project include charges that it’s bad science and that the whole project is driven by conflicts of interest. I explore those charges over on that other Berkeley web site:

  • StokeyBob

    Chapter 1. The Good

    You mentioned genetic testing being a good thing.

    It can be.

    Say you’re an orphan, or know of some genetic defect in your family, or are worried that something may be hiding that you could benefit by knowing about. Maybe you decide the $1000.00 is worth spending to have the test done. That information could help you protect yourself by taking certain precautions.

    Chapter 2. The Bad

    Now say you decide that you may be able to benefit by having me tested. You’ve paid for the test and you’ve got the results. Now maybe protection for you is to see that I am not able to see the specialist or have certain test that could cost you down the road.

    Chapter 3. The Ugly

    And now to get really deep and on a different slant on the topic.

    Say the government has convinced you that it is a good thing for them to do the test for you.

    They pay for it. They get the results. What are their motives?

    And to top it off. They have no money to pay for it. They print it up out of thin air and devalue the money you have with inflation.

    See it’s like say you have all the money in the world. Say it’s a Brazillian dollars. They print up a Brizillion dollars to do the testing and all of a sudden your Brazillion is worth only half as much.

    That is what counterfeiting does.

    That is what they have been doing.

    That may be why so many people can’t keep up with them and can no longer afford to work.