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UC Berkeley offer to test DNA of incoming students sparks debate

Freshmen and transfers are asked to send in a sample of their saliva to be analyzed for reactions to 3 dietary substances. Privacy watchdogs and ethicists criticize the move.

June 01, 2010|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times

"I think the idea was clever and innovative," he said. "I think they came up with a very interesting idea in demonstrating personalized medicine and genetic testing."

One aspect of the project has been modified in response to concerns. The university had planned to offer several more detailed DNA analyses from a commercial company as prizes in an essay and art contest about personalized medicine. But the awards will now be cash; the university said it did not want to appear to be endorsing any product or taking a position on the controversial issue of direct-to-consumer testing.

Administrators said the total cost of the testing is estimated to be about $50,000, which will be funded by a College of Letters and Science donation pool, not state funds.

UC Berkeley's student newspaper, the Daily Californian, was the first to report on the DNA plan and comments on the paper's website in recent days have reflected some opposition: "Big Brother at Its Most Insidious," one wrote. "Creepy," another said.

But Jeremy Hardin, a UC Berkeley-bound senior at Wilson High School in Long Beach, was among a number of students interviewed who voiced support for the project. Hardin said he will be happy to send in his DNA samples and trusts the university to safeguard participants' privacy. "I'm totally for it. No one is forcing me to do it, and there's no real downside I can see," said the 17-year-old, who expects to major in philosophy and take pre-med courses.

In addition, he said, "you can actually learn something about yourself and about the group."

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