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Should students sequence their own DNA?

Posting in Cancer

Mount Sinai School of Medicine has announced the launch of a new course in which students can have a go at sequencing their own DNA.

In what is being billed as the first-ever course to offer whole-genome sequencing, medical and graduate students will be given the chance to sequence and interpret their own genomes. Titled ""Practical Analysis of Your Personal Genome", the elective course will teach students how to understand and apply genome sequencing to their own bodies.

Fascinating it may be, but it is also a sticky area. The question is -- do you really want to know? A project which my class was given in the third year of university, to research and present our family medical history, threw everyone down an uncomfortable and resentment-filled gauntlet. Asking students to dissect their genes is not likely to be palatable to everyone's taste either.

Just as The Guardian's Cath Ennis found. A first-year undergraduate student who was keen to see her own chromosomes, the university suddenly stopped offering the lab class -- as in the previous year, one student's discovery resulted in an entire family being sent to genetic counselling.

Hopefully, Mount Sinai won't have the same liability concerns, as students can choose to examine their own DNA, or an alternative anonymous example. Each examination will uncover several million sequence variants, but more importantly, students could learn what the potential risk is for the donor to develop diseases including cancer or diabetes -- and whether any mutations could be a concern for future children.

It is also important that Mount Sinai has decided to use questionnaires in order to measure the psychological impact of students whole-genome sequencing themselves. Recent technological advances have lowered the cost of the process, and due to to this, "precision medicine" is coming of age -- the practice of using genetic knowledge to create individualized care. But without psychological research to back up the practice, it may be stymied -- or instigated in a harmful way to a patient.

"For precision medicine to become a routine in the medical clinic, we need to train the next great generation of physicians to harness sequencing-driven medical genetics," explained Dennis S. Charney, MD, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Dean of Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs of The Mount Sinai Medical Center.

"We believe that an approach tailored to each individual patient's diagnosis and treatment, informed by genomic information, will provide dramatic improvements in the quality of care. Practical Analysis of Your Personal Genome reflects Mount Sinai's commitment to revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of disease through the application of genomic information."

20 students including MD and PhD students, medical residents, genetic counseling students, and junior faculty will be part of the first course.

Image credit: Ismael Villafranco

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— By on October 13, 2012, 1:18 AM PST

Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure