Pharmacogenomics and the Biology of Race

January 5, 2015 6:54 PM

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The numerous and impassioned responses to Nicholas Wade's recently published Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History have once again reminded us of the complexity, ambiguity and perils of writing about the biology of race. In the US one is reminded of the collective sins of our past, including the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century, whereby a disproportionate percentage of people of color and those from lower socio-economic classes were sterilized, and the Tuskegee Study conducted between 1932 and 1972 in which 600 African-American sharecroppers in rural Alabama were purposely not treated for syphilis in order to ascertain information on the long-term effects of the disease. More recently, debates about the biology of race have raged among certain academic circles. While biologists will tell you that humans (other than identical twins, triplets, etc.) do differ from one another genetically -- i.e. at the level of the DNA, they will also admit that the difference is rather small. And many (but certainly not all) are loath to label populations, which share the same genetic alleles (or different versions of a gene) as "races." It turns out there are numerous ways in which one can understand human diversity, including geographic ancestry or responses to environmental selection factors. Sickle cell anemia is a case in point. Identified over a century ago, it was originally thought to be limited to "the Negro race." As time went on, people from parts of Italy, Greece, Iran, India, and in other diverse locations were identified with the disease. Population biologists then realized that being heterozygous for the sickle cell trait, i.e. possessing one normal copy of the gene and one copy of the sickle cell allele, granted its owner immunity to malaria. That is to say, sickle cell anemia is better understood as a disease in response to a particular environment than a trait of a particular race. Tay-Sachs, or the so-called "Jewish disease," is now found much more abundantly in those who do not identify themselves as Jews than in those who do.

So why then is race the privileged category used by biomedical researchers in understanding human diversity? There are four sets of institutions that have used race as the primary signify of difference, albeit for very different reasons, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Food and Drug Adm...

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