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Race and the clinic: good science? Human genome findings practically erase race as a biological factor. (News)(Cover Story).(Cover Story)

Source: The Scientist

Publication Date: 18-FEB-02
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Race and the clinic: good science? Human genome findings practically erase race as a biological factor. (News)(Cover Story).(Cover Story)

Humans have long embraced the idea of grouping and naming people who have distinct, genetically determined physical characteristics, like almond-shaped eyes or different skin color. It made sense, from a social standpoint (think safety, politics, and business) to align one's self with kin. However, studying race from a biological point of view, in the hopes of learning about specific diseases or developing new drugs, is a different matter altogether.

"Race is generally not a useful consideration in a clinical decision," says medical ethicist Susan Setta, professor of philosophy and religion at Northeastern University in Boston. "It is sometimes used as a substitute for considerations of lifestyle, which are often essential components of clinical decision-making." Harold Freeman, director of the National Cancer Institute's Center to Reduce Health Disparities, said at a recent meeting, "Race disappears when you look at the human genome."

But scientists know that they cannot ignore the clinical data that show, for example, that African Americans die at a higher rate from coronary heart disease than do whites. Moreover, population genetics has long shown that certain single-gene disorders are more prevalent in some populations, such as Tay-Sachs disease among Ashkenazi Jews. Polygenic disorders also tend to be more common in some population groups. So, it isn't surprising that epidemiological studies show that certain drugs have a better efficacy rate in some groups than others. The controversy arises over what to do with this type of information. For some scientists, the question now is, "Do different ways exist to organize people?" So far, researchers are "exploring a few ideas, including studying the human brain and identifying gene combinations that control drug responses. Says Freeman, "Race doesn't exist, but yet it does."

RACE AND GENETICISTS Geneticists have long considered racial designations to be more sociological than biological. In 1999, the American Anthropological Association concurred with the statement that "... human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups.... Throughout history, whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred. Any attempt...

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