19 Apr Symposium examines the effect of race on genetics and disease
MADISON – Health statistics are often broken down into categories by race. But increasingly, scientists question whether race is a meaningless concept that has no basis in biology or genetics.
This was the concern of 40 scientists and ethicists at a symposium titled “Race, Genetics & Disease” at Grainger Hall April 16 and 17. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies sponsored the symposium.
Marcus Feldman, professor of biological science at Stanford University, pointed out 99.9% of all humans have the same genetic composition.
“So it’s that 0.1 percent that accounts for all the differences between all of us,” he said.
Fellow speaker Sandra Soo-Jin Lee, senior research scholar at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, agreed genetics reflect a very small difference between members of different races.
“There is 10 times more difference genetically between a Caucasian man and his [Caucasian] wife than there is between a Caucasian man and a black man,” she said.
These data call into question research that focuses on race as a distinct, scientifically valid concept. Jonathan Kahn, senior research fellow at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota, gave an example using the pharmaceutical manufacturer NitroMed.
NitroMed offers a drug called BiDil for the treatment of heart failure. The FDA initially rejected BiDil because NitroMed could not demonstrate its effectiveness across the entire population.
“So NitroMed went back to the data and broke them out by race,” which seemed to show increased effectiveness for blacks, Kahn said. NitroMed then sought approval for BiDil as a drug for African Americans. “And the FDA did approve that,” Kahn said, though he suggested NitroMed called BiDil an African-American drug more as a marketing ploy than a reflection of its increased effectiveness for the entire racial group.
As Kahn pointed out, “In NitroMed’s SEC filings, they acknowledge there may be no separate meaning of race, and that they can’t define ‘African American’.”
Several speakers agreed it is still important to consider race, but not simply as a reflection of skin and hair color.
Pilar Ossorio, assistant professor of law and bioethics at UW-Madison, said race is not just ancestry, but an ideology around ancestry, language, accent, religion, skin color and more. She said social scientists still need to consider race as a variant between people.
“Race influences a person’s access to education, housing, employment, health care, even exposure to toxins,” she said. “So we still need to keep race as a scientific consideration.”
One audience member, a black woman, said she would not trust a drug marketed to her by race.
“If I go to my doctor and he says, ‘Here’s a drug especially for you as an African American,’ I’m going to say, ‘Thanks, but I’ll take what you give to the white folks,’” she said.
Dinesh Ramde is a staff writer for the Wisconsin Technology Network and can be reached at email@example.com.