Course puts student DNA under the microscope

The test will also tell students important clues about their ancestry. - .K. Uzodinma
The test will also tell students important clues about their ancestry. -  .K. Uzodinma
The test will also tell students important clues about their ancestry. – .K. Uzodinma

SFU genomics students are taking a closer look at their DNA than they’ve ever been able to before.

As part of MBB 462, students can opt to send in their DNA in the form of cheek cells in their spit to 23andMe, a private American company that offers genetic testing for $199.

The tests reveal genetic predispositions to certain diseases and the ancestry of the client, as well as statistics on the amount of their DNA that may have come from Neanderthals.

Ryan Morin, an assistant professor of MBB who has taught the course since Spring 2014, said that “in the context of a course like human genomics, it’s a good opportunity to offer [the 23andMe testing].” As part of the course, students learn about the complexity of human DNA as it relates to the immune system and diseases like cancer.

This isn’t the first time SFU students have investigated their own genes. This semester, students in HSCI 442 analyzed the part of their DNA that interacts with their immune response. They have been studying how forms of a certain gene, HLA, affect immune cells’ reactions to other cells that are infected with a virus. Zabrina Brumme in the Faculty of Health Science is researching how that variability affects people with HIV.

The use of genetic testing for treatment has been making headlines in provincial news. Recently, a BC woman named Trish Keating received treatment for her cancer with consideration paid to the specific genetic makeup of her tumour. She was treated with a drug normally used for treating high blood pressure and it proved to be effective, rendering her cancer undetectable.

This type of tailored approach to treatment is referred to as ‘personalized medicine,’ and has been a long-standing goal of genomics research.

However, the results of 23andMe testing aren’t meant for diagnostic use, leading critics to question the results’ accuracy. Morin acknowledged that in any test like this, “We usually can only capture a small fraction of where the genetics are in the genome [. . .] we are missing part of the story.”

There are also other hurdles that genetic testing must go through in order to become widespread practice. In 2013, 23andMe did not receive approval from the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) due to the fact that their test would count as a “medical device.” As such, it was warned to stop offering their test in the United States.

Despite these setbacks, the potential for 23andMe looks promising. In February of this year, the FDA changed its position and granted approval for a test to detect whether a patient was the carrier for the gene that leads to Bloom syndrome. The gene is very rare in the normal population, but has a much higher incidence in Ashkenazi Jews.

As genetic testing is already a typical part of checking an infant’s health, more widespread applications may be the next logical step. Morin agreed that the future of medicine lies in part with genetic testing, adding that “in some patients, this is going to be the only way we can treat them.”