Medicine students peer into their own genetic future

Xavier Symons
15 Jun 2013
Reproduced with Permission

Stanford University has introduced an ambitious new genetics subject into its medical curriculum, in which students study their own genetic data. They extract their DNA for testing, and then analyse its implications.

The unit has proved popular. "Trying to use my own genetic information as a learning tool - that sounded like something I wanted," said bioscience graduate student Thomas Roos, 28. He learned that he and his twin brother have slightly elevated risks of an Achilles tendon injury and dementia but a reduced risk of heart disease and arthritis.

One student discovered that he had a different father than he thought. The test revealed the student's father was not the man married to his mother, but rather a doctor. "He was amazingly OK with this," said Stuart Kim, the co-ordinator of the unit.

Studies have shown that very few physicians know how to use this data to help patients. The Stanford course is intended to address this.

When it was proposed two years ago it sparked intense debate, leading to the creation of a 29-member task force - lawyers, physicians, ethicists, philosophers and other faculty members - to investigate the possibility that findings will trigger student stress.

The subject is an elective unit, and prospective students are required to attend several informed consent sessions. They also have access to special psychiatric care and genetic counselling.