February 27, 2013

At more colleges, classes on genetics get personal

Ryan J. Foley / The Associated Press

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Bakir Hajdarevic didn't have to study for the most important test in a class last fall. He just had to spit – a lot.

click image to enlarge

University of Iowa Professor Jeff Murray talks about his genetic profile during his honors seminar on personal genetics in which students had the option of sending saliva samples so a testing company could use DNA to unlock some of their most personal health and family secrets.


The 19-year-old freshman at the University of Iowa took an honors seminar on personal genetics in which students had the option of sending saliva samples so a testing company could use DNA to unlock some of their most personal health and family secrets. The results would tell them how likely they were to get some forms of cancer, whether they were carriers for genetic diseases, where their ancestors came from, and a trove of other information.

The class, taught at Iowa for the first time, is part of a growing movement in higher education to tackle the rapidly advancing field of personal genetics, which is revolutionizing medicine and raising difficult ethical and privacy questions. The classes are forcing students to decide whether it is better to be ignorant or informed about possible health problems — a decision more Americans will confront as the price of genetic testing plummets and it becomes more popular.

Hajdarevic said he was eager to "find out about all the little mysteries" lurking in his DNA. Sure he was nervous that he might get bad news about cancer risks. But he said the curiosity to learn about himself — and whether he needed to take steps to improve his health — outweighed those concerns.

And so, one day last fall, he found himself in his dorm room struggling to spit into a test tube that he would mail to 23andMe, the Mountain View, Calif., testing company.

"It was like 10 minutes of spitting, literally," he recalled, laughing. "I ran out of spit really quickly. I was spitting for like 15 seconds and then I'd run out of juice."

Such episodes have become more common as similar classes have popped up on college campuses over the past three years with backing from 23andMe, which tests for about one million genetic variants possibly linked to tens of thousands of conditions and traits. The company announced in December it had raised $50 million from investors, and was cutting its price for its personal genotype testing from $299 to $99.

23andMe has offered universities discounts on the testing for the classes, along with course materials, and has partnered with dozens of universities and high schools. Stanford University, University of Illinois, the University of Texas and Duke University are some of the schools featuring courses on personal genetics this year, according to its website.

Some of the classes are geared toward medical, nursing and pharmacy students whose careers could be shaped by genetics, while others are for undergraduates hoping to learn more about a field often noted in popular culture. Most of the courses are electives, and students can opt out of the testing if they're uncomfortable. For students whose DNA is tested, the knowledge they glean is intensely personal and wide-ranging, from whether they are a carrier for cystic fibrosis to whether they are likely to be good sprinters.

This is a generation that grew up sharing details of their lives on Facebook, and these students said they were eager to know more about themselves.

"I thought the coolest thing about the whole class was that you would be able to test your own genetics to find out things about yourself. That's what drew me in," said University of Iowa freshman Morgan Weis, who plans a career in nursing. When her results came back, "I told my friends, 'Come look at this, it's so cool'. I was pretty excited about it."

This semester, Stanford professor Stuart Kim is teaching a class for medical students and graduate students in genetics and computer science for a fourth time. He says his students will never forget the class when they learn whether they are sensitive to the blood-thinner Warfarin; that knowledge could be critical if they ever suffer a stroke, because too large or small a dose could kill them. But he dreads the day when testing informs a student: That man who raised you? He's not your biological father.

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