By Rachel Gross
UC Berkeley will go ahead with its controversial DNA testing program for freshmen, but with one key change: students won’t receive personal analyses of the three genes being tested. Instead, professors will lecture on the politics of personalized medicine and the results of the data as a whole.
The change was necessitated by a California Department of Health decision today mandating that the testing be done only in specific state-certified laboratories. But it’s too late in the game for the program to secure such a lab, said the university’s dean of Biological Sciences, Mark Schlissel.
“It’s a very aggressive interpretation of the law that our lawyers disagree with, and that I personally disagree with,” he said in a phone interview. “They’ve pretty much made it impossible.”
Leaders of the program, called “Bring Your Genes to Cal,” had believed they were exempt from the public health code mandating the labs because the testing was educational and the genes being tested were not disease-related, according to a university press release sent out today.
So far, around 700 of the 5,000 students who were sent an informational packet and a cotton swab have turned in a DNA sample. Schlissel expects 1,000 by the end of the week, which is the deadline.
The decision comes after a state higher education committee hearing on Tuesday, where UC leaders and groups opposing the program presented their cases regarding the ethical, legal and privacy implications of the testing.
Assemblymember Marty Block, chair of the committee, emphasized that the department’s decision and the “healthy debate” witnessed at the hearing would set a precedent for similar programs in the future.
“I am glad to see the university taking appropriate steps to address some of the problems that have arisen,” he said in a press release today. “It is our responsibility…to ensure that future pursuits are executed in a sound and ethical manner.”
Schlissel said UC Berkeley had no intentions of replicating the program in the near future, but he has fielded calls from universities nationwide interested in creating similar programs.
Although the decision comes as a disappointment for Schlissel, he added that “there is a silver lining. It has certainly provoked a heated discussion over who controls an individual’s access to his or her genetic information — and that’s part of why we’re doing the program.”