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Students' DNA on the curriculum at Stanford Medical School

June 14, 2010 |  1:05 pm

In addition to hitting the books, students at Stanford Medical School will have the chance to study their own DNA as part of a new course being offered over the summer.

Stanford The class – Genetics 210: Genomics and Personalized Medicine – is designed to give future doctors a sense of how to deal with patients who take the type of tests currently offered by companies like Navigenics and 23andMe to predict their genetic risk for certain diseases. The tests – sold directly to consumers over the Internet – examine mutations on specific genes that are thought to make people more or less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, age-related macular degeneration and other conditions.

But with so much still unknown about the link between genes and disease, the tests have serious limits. That’s one of the lessons the class will offer, according to the university. Students will also learn how to analyze and interpret the test results, as well as discuss the legal and ethical issues surrounding personal genomics. (One recent development: Last week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration told the companies that the tests should be considered medical devices and must get FDA approval to remain on the market.)

Swabbing one’s cheek is not a requirement – students who feel squeamish about seeing their own genetic code can use a publicly available DNA sample instead. Also, to reduce the risk that students will submit to the test just because it’s free, the university will charge a $99 copay. These and other stipulations were recommended by a panel of scientists, clinical professors and bioethicists after a yearlong review of course.

The course still concerns some genetics watchdogs, such as Jesse Reynolds at the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley. The eight-week elective could lead to more widespread genetic testing among Stanford students, he writes on the center’s blog, Biopolitical Times. It could also be seen as endorsement of the controversial direct-to-consumer DNA testing industry.

But the Stanford class is not nearly as worrisome as UC Berkeley’s plan to send DNA collection kits to thousands of incoming freshmen and transfer students over the summer, Reynolds writes. The Bring Your Genes to Cal initiative was intended to give new students something meaningful to discuss in campus seminars this fall, but privacy advocates have urged the university to cancel the program.

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: Stanford medical students will add their DNA to the curriculum this summer. Credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times.

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