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Personalized medicine: Check your DNA at the door

Personalized medicine: Check your DNA at the door

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College students can have their DNA tested to find out if they should avoid milk or drink less alcohol. As the argument over regulation of the consumer DNA test heats up, it's clear that personalized medicine is here to stay.

College kids survive on a diet of beer and pizza, but personalized medicine might soon change that. This summer, UC - Berkeley wants 5,500 new students to participate in a DNA experiment: The students will be required to return a swab of their cheek cells, so they can find out if they have the genes to metabolize folate, lactose, and alcohol.

Ideally, the students who lack the genes will modify their behavior accordingly. They would eat more green vegetables, avoid milk products (and prepare to explain to everyone and their mother why they now drink soy milk), and hold back on the drinking. This seems like a wonderful idea, but freshmen at a party might not really care if they don't have the genes to metabolize alcohol.

I definitely would have benefited from this test, as I found out after college I could not digest milk and only had one of the genes to metabolize alcohol (which I totally blame on my Asian heritage).

The Berkeley experiment seems pretty innocent:

The idea is not to identify potentially dangerous genes in students' samples, but to point out traits that can be managed through behavior, said Jasper Rine, a professor of genetics, genomics and development. "We want to get people to appreciate that there are things you can do that enhance your health based on the genes you have," he said. "There are concrete, actionable, specific steps that do enhance quality of life. This is the message of the post-genomic era." [USA Today]

The results will remain anonymous - the students can check their genes by entering a barcode given to them. There's been some push back as people worry that the university is forcing people to test the "unproven technology".

When the consumer testing companies claim to interpret people's risk of developing common diseases, critics worry about the misuse of information. When Walgreens announced that it would sell Pathway Genomics at its drug stores, it attracted the FDA’s attention (in a bad way). I couldn't really see someone coming in to buy a soda and chips pick up a genetic test on a whim anyway.

But the matter isn't being taken lightly. The drugstore genetics case has instigated a congressional investigation:

The Committee is requesting information from the companies on several aspects of the tests: How the companies analyze test results to determine consumers’ risk for any conditions, diseases, drug responses, and adverse reactions; the ability of the companies’ genetic testing products to accurately identify any genetic risks; and the companies’ policies for the collection, storage, and processing of individual genetic samples collected from consumers.

The letters to 23andMe, Navigenics, and Pathway Genomics can be read here.

Look, the tests aren’t exactly ready for prime time – there’s a lot more unknown than known. If you are tempted to peer into your biological destiny like I was, you have to be prepared for how you will interpret the information and how that might affect your lifestyle choices.

I don’t regret taking the tests. I realize the information about DNA is constantly changing. The results don’t give you a simple "yes" or "no" answer, which is something we are used getting in return when we take traditional medical tests. You have to realize you are entering a scientific experiment, rather than getting back certain test results.

The commercial DNA tests made me think deeply about my health and made me rethink the way I was living.

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Image: flickr/ Lawrence OP

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Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure