Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Alcohol Metabolism Testing: Harmful or Helpful?

According to a recent New York Times article, the University of California at Berkeley is giving incoming freshmen students a unique way to bond with each other before the first day of school: sending in a DNA sample to be analyzed for an individual’s ability to metabolize alcohol, lactose and folates. The school’s stated intention is to help students think critically about genetic testing, but their choice of alcohol as an “innocuous” gene test topic is questionable.

According to the schools FAQ section for students about the test:

The second gene encodes an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase. This is one of a series of enzymes involved in metabolizing (digesting) alcohol. We will test for a variant of this gene that is associated with flushing (red face) and nausea after drinking alcohol. Since most of you are below the legal age for drinking alcohol, we strongly suggest that you not drink regardless of the results of this gene test.

Despite the school’s disclaimer, giving this kind of test to first-year students, most of whom are 18 or 19 and years away from legally drinking, sends a message that drinking is expected. We’re not the only ones who think so.

There’s also the risk that someone might misunderstand the results, test negative and not think any guidelines pertain to them, therefore assuming they can drink as much as they want.

Other critics say that it is irresponsible to provide any genetic testing outside of a medical setting, because there is no chance for those receiving the results to get feedback or ask questions. Once a student learns whether or not they have a gene that makes their face flush when they have alcohol then what? Who do they go to? Even if there are, as the New York Times article states, follow up “lectures and panels with philosophers, ethicists, biologists and statisticians exploring the benefits and risks of personal genomics,” this does not take the place of individualized counseling.

Alcohol is a critical discussion topic for any freshman orientation. Presenting such a serious topic as a harmless genetics issue, lumped together with lactose and folate, is inappropriate and potentially harmful. What do you think? Should UC Berkeley use genetic testing in this way? Should genetic testing related to alcohol be a part of it?

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