People who need personalized diets, for diabetes for example, can send their DNA to companies that use it to provide them with tailor-made dietary advice. But how safe is it to pass on that DNA information? WUR student Tessa Canoy (23) wrote her thesis on this, and won the Jan Brouwer Thesis Prize. The first non-Law student to do so.
The thesis is about personalized nutrition, which can mean different things, says Tessa, a student of Food Technology & Food Safety. ‘I looked at tailor-made dietary recommendations based on biological information. That could be information about genes or about proteins. There are now companies that offer to analyse the relationship between your health and your diet. To do so, they take DNA or blood from the consumers, for testing. They analyse the material and find out what you should and shouldn’t eat, based on genetics or protein levels. But to do that they use valuable and sensitive information from the consumers. What will they do with that information? You don’t want that privacy-sensitive information ending up with your employer or your insurance company. You want that information to be protected.’
The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) lays down what may or may not be done with data. Tessa made a legal analysis of how the GDPR applies to this domain. Interestingly, she also made an ethical analysis. ‘So I compared the requirements that the GDPR stipulates for personalized nutrition with requirements based on ethical grounds. I got those from the medical world, from the principle of ‘informed consent’, which means a doctor must ask a patient’s permission to perform a treatment. And so I looked at how the GDPR can regulate personalized nutrition ethically.’
Not a typical Law thesis
Tessa came up with her thesis topic herself, and with the idea of combining elements of Law and Philosophy. ‘That meant I also had two supervisors and that really added an extra dimension, enabling me to evaluate the legislation by ethical standards.’ The jury of the Jan Brouwer Thesis Prize was impressed that someone who didn’t have a Law background could write this thesis, and with an application in personalized nutrition. ‘I felt honoured that my thesis was even submitted. I never expected to win, precisely because it is not a typical Law thesis. The prize-giving ceremony is in Haarlem on 20 April. Two of the eight winners get to give a presentation, and I’m one of them.’
Tessa studied Food Technology & Food Safety and besides producing this prizewinning thesis, she is working on the Master’s in Food Biotechnology. ‘That thesis is about Food Technology and I have one year to finish it.’
The Jan Brouwer Thesis Prize is awarded by the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities (KHNW), which hands out eight prizes every year for social sciences such as Religious Studies, Linguistics, Economics and Law. All the Law faculties in the Netherlands can nominate someone, and until this year the prize has only gone to people with a Law background.