Berkeley Students To Get DNA Test In Welcome Kits

Incoming freshmen at the College of Letters and Science at the University of California Berkeley will be offered voluntary DNA tests to analyze genes that help control the body's responses to alcohol, dairy products and folic acid. Robert Siegel talks with Mark Schlissel, dean of biological science at the college, about the plan.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

At the University of California Berkeley, incoming college students are being asked to take part in an interesting welcome-to-college project. They're being asked to spit in a plastic tube. The point is to collect their DNA and to test it for three genetic markers. It's this year's edition of Berkeley's On the Same Page program, which engages incoming students in considering some common topic. And this year the topic is personalized medicine.

Dr. Mark Schlissel is dean of biological science at the College of Letters and Science at Berkeley. Welcome to the program, Dr. Schlissel.

Dr. MARK SCHLISSEL (Dean of Biological Sciences, College of Letters and Science at Berkeley): Thank you, Robert, a pleasure to speak with you today.

SIEGEL: And, first, what's the idea behind, as it's being called, Bring Your Genes to Cal?

Dr. SCHLISSEL: Well, each year we look for an engaging topic of intellectual and social interest that calls upon the breadth of expertise in Berkeley, and we use it to welcome our students to our intellectual community. So, last year, for example, we spoke about Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma," speaking about sustainable agriculture and human nutrition.

This year the group of deans settled upon this topic of personalized medicine, the set of rapidly improving DNA-based technologies that will allow physicians to better prevent, diagnose and treat disease. And the question was, what kind of study object should we send our students? But rather than send a book or an article, we came upon the idea of actually involving the students in providing a sample of the type they may be asked to provide by their physicians in the future. We thought it would be an engaging way to start the conversation.

SIEGEL: And what are the three genetic markers that you're going to test Berkeley freshmen and transfer students for?

Dr. SCHLISSEL: Yeah, we purposefully chose three genes that are not disease associated. So the first is a gene that codes for an enzyme called lactase, which is involved in digesting milk products, lactose - the sugar in milk. The second is a gene called methyl tetra hydrofolate reductaser, MTHFR for short, and it's involved in the metabolism of a vitamin, folic acid, vitamin B9 found in leafy green vegetables. About 40 percent of the population has one type of this gene and 60 percent has a second. So it's a common gene variant.

And the third is a gene called aldehyde dehydrogenase that's involved in the metabolism of alcohol that's associated with a syndrome where folks take a drink of wine or beer and their face turns red. Facial flushing, it's called -associated with a bit of nausea. Again, quite common in the population, not associated with a disease, just part of normal human variation.

SIEGEL: The program has generated some controversy and I wonder if you sympathize at all with people who instinctively think that asking for DNA is a little bit more intrusive than asking for, say, your Social Security number.

Dr. SCHLISSEL: We certainly had this notion in mind as we designed the program. It was absolutely key that the program be entirely voluntary with no element of coercion and that we assure the anonymity and privacy of these samples. And we designed a program which we believe does those things. And we also put it past our institutional review board, a committee called the committee for protection of human subjects that looks at all research on the Berkeley campus involving humans or human materials.

SIEGEL: Do you know yet what the degree of compliance, the request is, whether almost everyone...

Dr. SCHLISSEL: No, that's interesting. We have a bit of a pool going on here on campus. It depends who you ask, actually. It turns out folks my age or perhaps our age, I'm in my early 50s, wonder whether maybe 10, 20, 30 percent of the kids will comply. But I've spoken with groups of newly accepted students in my capacity as dean, going out and telling them what to expect about their freshman year, and uniformly the kids seemed to think this is a great idea. And I asked them how many people would respond and they're guessing 90 percent or more.

SIEGEL: Dr. Schlissel, thank you very much for talking with us about it.

Dr. SCHLISSEL: Pleasure speaking with you, and thanks for your interest.

SIEGEL: That's Dr. Mark Schlissel who is dean of biological science at the College of Letters and Science at U.C. Berkeley.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.