Medical Students’ DNA – and Psychology – on Display in Classroom

Posted by Jessica Cussins October 31, 2012
Biopolitical Times

In a recent CBS News video segment, Eric E. Schadt, chair of the Department of Genetics and Genomic Sciences at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, enthusiastically discussed the benefits of whole-genome sequencing. When asked about the technology’s potential down sides, he answered:

The social implications, what sorts of policy we should be thinking about, those are the discussions we should be having right now, about how to leverage this information in ways that are benefitting humankind, not biasing the type of population through unnatural selection of traits.

Given this view, one would imagine that Schadt’s department is deeply engaged with these discussions. In at least one way, it is. He explained that the school is addressing the social and ethical complexities of whole-genome sequencing by offering a first-of-its-kind course in which students analyze entire genomes (either their own or an anonymous sample) and then take part in a research study on the effects of getting this information.

Put another way, the school is hoping to determine the ethics of a new technology they’ve adopted by performing it on their students and taking stock of the damage.

The course is called “Practical Analysis of Your Personal Genome” and currently has 20 people enrolled, including MD and PhD students, genetic counseling students, and junior faculty. The students will be able to use Mount Sinai’s own equipment to sequence and analyze more than four million genetic variants, at no cost to them. Though most of these variants are not fully understood, they will be the basis of predictions about the students’ risks of developing thousands of diseases, their responses to medicine, and clues to their ancestry. The information will be relevant not just to them, but also to their family members, including any children they may have. The department is covering the expenses, which will be a few thousand dollars per genome.

But the students’ sequencing and analysis work is just one aspect of the course. Through a questionnaire-based study, the students will also be taking part in a research project that aims to assess the utility of whole-genome sequencing, the degree to which the exercise improves their knowledge of genomics, and the impact of so much sensitive information on their psychological well-being. The school hopes the results of this research will shed light on how to deal with the complexities and sensitivities of genomic data. The results will be available after the class concludes in December and, as Assistant Professor of Genetics and Genomic Sciences Randi E. Zinberg noted in Mount Sinai’s press release, the school has big plans for how it will  utilize the study. “We look forward to sharing our learning from this course with other medical schools and graduate schools worldwide to help advance the breadth and depth of medical genetics education.”