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Using genetic testing to enhance students' knowledge of personalized medicine

Keyan SalariWithin each of our DNA are secrets about our health. And with the explosion in genetic testing and genomics research over the last 10 years, more and more of those secrets are being revealed. Today for a price, any consumer can send off a cheek swab to a genetics testing company and receive information on their risks for more than 80 major health conditions.

Still, one of the major stumbling blocks to the usefulness of this wealth of personal health information is the lack of physician training on how to use it. As part of an effort to fill this educational gap, Stanford's medical school started an elective course in 2010 to train advanced-degree students in genomics and personalized medicine - and students in the class were given the option of getting their personal genome tested. The majority of the students (23 out of 31) chose to send a sample of their DNA to 23andMe, a DNA analysis service, and use the results as an in-class learning tool.

As a first-of-its-kind course, the use of this rather controversial method was approved only after a year of debate among Stanford scientists, ethicists, and others. As part of the approval process, it was decided that a study should be conducted to determine just how successful the educational method proved to be. The resulting paper appears today in PLOS ONE.

As I report in a release on the work, the methods appear successful: Students who had their genome tested improved their knowledge of the class materials by an average of 31 percent compared with those who didn’t undergo the testing. Study results also showed that 83 percent of students who chose to undergo testing were pleased with their decision, and 70 percent of those who underwent the testing reported a better understanding of human genetics on the basis of having undergone testing.

Lead study author Keyan Salari, MD, PhD, conceived of the idea for the course in 2009 as a PhD student in genetics, and he outlined for me how his own testing improved his educational experience:

I was curious about what stories were hidden in my genome, what health risks, what responses to drugs that might be predicted. For instance, I learned I might have a higher risk for age-related macular degeneration. That led me to read and learn a lot more about the genetics of that disease than I probably would not have otherwise.

Salari said the study results indicate that "learning principles of human genetics is more powerful, and learning is more sustained, when exploring your own."

Previously: Insights from patients who have done genetic testing, NPR explores the pros and cons of scientists sequencing their own genes, Controversial class primes students in genomics, Stanford TA weighs in on what students learned by being genotyped, Stanford students discuss studying their own genotypes and Genotype testing for medical, graduate students
Photo, of Keyan Salari standing among genome sequencing machines, by Leslie Williamson

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