Exploring personalized medicine with Jasper Rine
By Monica Friedlander
Going to college is always a test of who you are, but never more literally so than it will be next fall. Freshmen in the College of Letters and Science will have the opportunity to find out what they’re made of — genetically speaking — courtesy of the College’s “On the Same Page” program. Until now, the program asked new students to read a new book or watch a film that would give them something to talk about for the rest of the year. This time, On the Same Page takes a bold step in a different direction to explore one of the most exciting, cutting-edge areas of modern science: personalized medicine. What’s more, it will give students a rare chance to experience it on their own.
The welcoming package for incoming students will contain what might look like an absurdly simple and low-tech gadget: a cotton swab. Those who choose to use it, however, will send it back anonymously with a tiny sample of DNA off the inside of their cheeks. The resulting personal genetic analysis will unlock mysteries hidden in three of their genes.
"Understanding the impact of the variation in each of our genomes is the defining challenge for human biology for this century," said Professor Jasper Rine, who is leading the program and will present a special lecture on September 13 in Wheeler Auditorium. Rine is the Howard Hughes Professor and Professor of Genetics, Genomics and Development.
The genetic analysis to be performed as part of the program will unveil information about three non-threatening genetic factors affecting our health: the ability to absorb folic acid, to tolerate alcohol, and to metabolize lactose. These particular genes were chosen because the health issues they control are all amenable to easy solutions should any of the tests come back positive. The knowledge thus gained can serve to arm students with information to improve their health and wellbeing.
This personal discovery will be a starting point for a series of stimulating activities that will engage students in debates and discussion on a wide range of topics. In addition to Rine’s talk in September, the program will feature panels on policy and ethical issues, Freshmen Seminars, a virtual bookshelf, a blog, and discussions of a film and the book on which it was based.
A contest will also be held inviting students to exercise their creative talents. Entries may consist of essays, poems, sculptures, music, or any other mode of expression. The winners will receive cash prizes of $1,000 for the top entry and $500 each for the next three prizes.
"This is a spectacular opportunity for our students to consider an issue that will no doubt have an effect on all of their lives in the decades ahead," said Mark Schlissel, dean of Biological Sciences in L&S. "It will impact their health care, personal lives, employment, and the type of society they will live in. Although based in biomedical science, the potential impact of personalized medicine will require that all educated citizens contribute to the discussion of how we acquire and use the most personal of all information — one's genetic legacy."
The term personalized medicine sounds part science fiction, part Brave New World. In fact, the era of personalized medicine is already upon us. The term refers to a set of emerging technologies that may revolutionize medicine by allowing us to predict, diagnose and treat human disease by tailoring medical care to a person’s individual genome sequence. Companies like 23andMe are already out there, testing anyone’s genome for the presence of up to one million common DNA sequence variants.
The advent of these revolutionary technologies offers great promise for medical science and raises large questions about scientific advances, such as how the Human Genome Project will affect our health or health care policy. Personalized medicine could lead to far more effective clinical decisions and guide the selection of drugs to individual needs. Someday it could also result in huge cost savings for the medical industry.
At the same time, these advances also raise important practical, political, legal, and ethical dilemmas. Can we prevent insurance companies or employers from obtaining genetic information and making decisions based on that data? Will economic factors exacerbate the discrepancies in access to health care that are already experienced by millions of Americans? What about the implications of individuals learning about impending health catastrophes before we have the tools to overcome them? All these issues will be addressed in classrooms over the course of the coming academic year.
The information Berkeley students will glean from their genetic analysis can only lead to positive outcomes. Should any of them come back positive, students will discover they are part of a large group of people for whom it may be particularly important to eat a healthy diet rich in folic acid, control their lactose intake, or reduce their alcohol consumption. Even negative test results will enhance knowledge, which, in this instance, will only translate into power.
Each individual student will possess the sole means of recognizing his or her own data--even the scientists will have no way to identify whose genes are whose--and all genetic material will be incinerated after the experiment has been run. These and other safeguards have been approved by the campus Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects.
The program will expose students to a multitude of fields and even potential careers. The topic of personalized medicine lies at the intersection of many of the fastest growing disciplines, ranging from molecular science and computational biology to epidemiology, genomic medicine, and legal fields dealing with medical ethics.
“I'm excited about this year's topic because it's so contemporary and interdisciplinary and because it will touch all our lives in some way,” said Alix Schwartz, program coordinator for On the Same Page. “I can easily imagine new students in L&S coming to campus eager to engage in stimulating intellectual discussions about the medical, ethical, and socio-political issues raised by personalized medicine.”