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California halts genetic testing of students

12 July 2010
Appeared in BioNews 566

Proposals to genetically test incoming freshman and transfer students to the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), are under fire. UCB intended to offer a genetic test to its thousands of entrants, which would test three gene variants: genes that affect the ability to absorb folic acid, metabolise alcohol and digest lactose.

However, following serious and widespread concern, the scheme could be thwarted by an emergency Bill introduced last month in the Californian state legislature specifically targeting the university's gene testing programme. The Bill, which as an emergency measure would have immediate impact, intends to refrain a university from 'making an unsolicited request to an enrolled or prospective student of that segment for a DNA sample for the purpose of genetic testing'. Further, universities would be required to report the on costs of gene testing schemes, and funding would be reduced accordingly.

Several criticisms have been levelled at UCB's proposal. First, as a scientific experiment, its target participants includes minors (on average freshmen will be 17-18 years old). Secondly, allowing the testing programme would indirectly legitimise direct-to-consumer genetic tests - a product the US Food and Drug Administration recently halted the sale of in Walgreens shops on the grounds of providing consumers misleading and inconsistent information. Thirdly, testing for the rate at which one metabolises alcohol could be misconstrued as a green light to drink, or increase alcohol consumption to match a strong metabolism. Finally, it is questionable as to what will be gained from these tests (see previous comment article, 'Concerns about genetic testing on freshers at Berkeley' in BioNews 561).

The emergency Bill is still making its way through the legislature and requires a 2/3 supermajority to pass.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
California Legislation on UC Berkeley Gene Testing
Biopolitical Times |  29 June 2010
California Legislative Bill Documents
California Legislative |  24 June 2010
UC Berkeley, Don't Send Those Swabs
Genetics and Society |  7 June 2010
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