At more colleges, classes on genetics get personal
IOWA CITY – Bakir Hajdarevic didn’t have to study for the most important test in a class last fall. He just had to spit – a lot.
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.