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Exposing the Student Body: Stanford Joins U.C. Berkeley in Controversial Genetic Testing of Students

Publication Date: 
July 06, 2010
Scientific American
Ferris Jabr

Professor Hank Greely discusses in Scientific American the legal ethics of university’s offering its students genetic testing as part of the academic curriculum:

This week, the University of California, Berkeley will mail saliva sample kits to every incoming freshman and transfer student. Students can choose to use the kits to submit their DNA for genetic analysis, as part of an orientation program on the topic of personalized medicine. But U.C. Berkeley isn't the only university offering its students genetic testing. Stanford University's summer session started two weeks ago, including a class on personal genomics that gives medical and graduate students the chance to sequence their genotypes and study the results.

The idea behind the two novel projects is that students will learn about optimizing treatment based on one's genetic profile most effectively if they are studying their own DNA—an idea that has met with both praise for educational innovation and criticism centering on potential ethical issues.


Not everyone at Stanford agrees that graduate and medical students are better able to interpret genetic data, however. "I don't like the idea of subsidized genotyping for students," says Hank Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford Law School. "I think it's less concerning when the students are medical students and PhD students than when they are freshmen, but the fact you are smart and know something about the Krebs cycle doesn't necessarily mean you know genetic risk very well."

"Those of us on the task force who opposed it are strong supporters of genetics, just genetics done carefully," Greely adds. "I think it's telling that all the ethics and policy people were largely against it but the basic science people were the most supportive."


Greely says that neither project is reckless or grossly foolish, but he advises against them. "There's been the assertion that students will be more engaged if they are studying their own DNA," he says, "but I haven't seen any empirical evidence for that. How significant of an improvement would that even be? I think it's a mistake."