If attendees at the Minnesota State Fair aren't too busy reveling in the performances of Kiss or "Weird Al" Yankovic, or enjoying a celebrity cow-milking contest, they might just try spitting for science.
This week, researchers from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis are collecting DNA from young fair-goers and their parents as part of an effort to uncover genetic influences on normal child health and development.
Logan Spector, a pediatrics researcher who is leading the project, dubbed the Gopher Kids Study, feels the fair provides an innovative opportunity to attract participants. His team hopes to recruit 500 children aged 1-11.
Along with DNA from cheek cells, Spector's team is measuring volunteers' height, weight, waist size and blood pressure. Participating children also have the option of donating blood-spot samples and nail clippings, which can be used to measure hormones and micronutrients.
In return for their DNA, participants receive ride tickets and other small gifts, as well as passes to attend the fair next year, where Spector hopes they will continue their participation in the study.
"Right now it's a pilot phase. We really wanted to see what the response was from the public to doing genomics work in this setting," he says. "The people who've come in here say their kids are excited about being part of a science project."
But the Gopher Kids Study is not without its critics, who worry about the setting, the involvement of children and the consent forms parents sign.
"It doesn't seem like an atmosphere that's conducive to really serious thinking about what you're being asked for," says Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, Calif. "I think they should not be tempting kids and their parents with free tickets at a state fair and think they're going to get meaningful consent."
Bartha Maria Knoppers, director of the Centre of Genomics and Policy at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, says that there are strict rules when it comes to collecting DNA from children. Typically, those who offer their DNA have a genetic disease and might, therefore, benefit from the research.
Exceptions are made for longitudinal studies looking at early genetic and environmental influences on health and disease, she says, but those studies require rigorous oversight and protection. "I'm wondering whether this approach discredits the importance of that kind of work," Knoppers says.
Lee Black, also at the McGill Centre of Genomics and Policy, sees no problem with collecting DNA at a state fair per se. But he does say that the four-page consent form that parents sign is lacking in detail. In particular, the document does not spell out specifically how the genetic information will be used in the future, nor whether it will be shared with other researchers. He also says that the researchers understate the risk that genetic information from participants in a data format--whether a complete sequence or a gene scan--will end up being made public.
Spector counters that his team's procedures and consent form underwent ethical review by the university's institutional review board. Parents are free to withdraw their children and their samples from the study at any time, and the researchers plan to contact participants when they are 18 to get permission to continue storing their samples. The criticisms of the Gopher Kids Study, he says, "seem to be inchoate fears about the future and not anything happening in the present".
"There is a real tendency to label every new genetic research undertaking as controversial," says Daniel Vorhaus, a biotechnology lawyer at Robinson Bradshaw and Hinson in Charlotte, N.C., pointing to the Gopher Kids Study and uproar over now-scuttled plans to offer genetic tests to new students at the University of California, Berkeley.
"I think that is an easy way to avoid the much more complicated question of analysing the benefits and the risks of genetic research," Vorhaus says, "including what can be gained by pursuing new ways to involve and educate members of the public on these topics and to increase public participation."