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DNA Donation on the Web

3 October 2000 7:00 pm
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You can already use the Internet to shop and make airline reservations; now you can donate your DNA, too. A commercial Web site is soliciting volunteers to submit blood for genetic disease research.

You won't receive any obvious benefit, such as your genetic profile in the mail, if you send your DNA to the company, DNA Sciences of Mountain View, California. But its Gene Trust project promises the "excitement and satisfaction" of knowing that "you played a part in medical history." The company plans to make money by developing diagnostic tests and by licensing its discoveries to drug companies.

To participate, you simply answer a few questions--age, ethnicity, whether you or members of your immediate family have one of about 20 diseases--and click a button indicating you have read and agree to the terms explained in a consent form. DNA Sciences may then contact you to ask more questions and arrange for you to give blood (at which time participants sign a more formal consent form).

Strangely enough, the strategy is working. Last month, just 6 weeks after the site opened, the company announced that it had attracted 4500 volunteers, enough to start studies of colon cancer, breast cancer, and asthma (over 400 have actually given blood). Its ultimate goal is 100,000 samples. Scientific director Ray White, formerly at the University of Utah, says he's especially excited about the Internet's potential for building "ongoing relationships" that follow a subject's health over many years.

To Stanford University law professor Henry Greely, the voluntary project is better in some ways than, say, Iceland's controversial national DNA data banks (Science, 30 October 1998, p. 859). But he questions whether informed consent obtained partly via the Web is adequate and whether people realize that their DNA could hypothetically be used for any purpose, such as studying genes for sexual orientation.

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