Ever since the fall of the Nazis, the world has tried to keep the
biology of racial disparity under wraps. It has been acceptable to
link racial differences to social and cultural factors. One race
might underperform another because of upbringing or poverty. But
suggesting biology as the cause for those differences - like "The
Bell Curve" did a decade ago when it looked at academic achievement -
was strictly taboo.
Now, a new and unexpected force - medicine - is pulling back the
covers. By taking a close look at minute differences in people's
genetic codes, researchers and drug companies are beginning to
create racially based drugs and treatments.
Given the prospect of targeting treatment, some scientists argue
that the subject at least ought not to be taboo. Even if race
eventually proves to be a crude and insufficient means of
understanding genetic differences, it can play an important interim
role, they say. Others worry that these voices fail to capture the
larger picture: how past claims of "scientific" race and ethnic
differences, now debunked, have been used to oppress, even kill,
"To use the rhetoric of science to sell the idea that historical
inequity should be embraced as biological inevitability is an insult
to those who value a common humanity," wrote researcher Richard
Cooper of the Loyola University medical school in a January article
in the American Psychologist. "Race is not a concept that emerged
from within modern genetics; rather, it was imposed by history, and
its meaning is inseparable from that cultural origin."
Indeed, scholars in recent decades had concluded that racial
designations are fuzzy, so hard to pin down that people's self-
reporting of their race had become the only useful method of
designating race. In the 1990s the work of the Human Genome Project -
an international effort to sequence and map all human genes - seemed
to add legitimacy to this view. At the genetic level, humans are
nearly indistinguishable from one another, 99.9 percent alike.
But as the genome project neared completion in 2003, scientists
began to look harder at the 0.1 percent of genes that differ. Their
hope: that understanding these differences would open up a new era
of medicine based on each patient's genetic makeup.
In recent months, race-based medicine has gained momentum:
* The Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve the
drug BiDil in June, making it the first "ethnic drug" on the market.
After failing in a broader study, BiDil was shown to be effective in
treating heart failure in a clinical study that included only
* The HapMap Project, expected to be completed this year, aims to
map haplotypes - sets of closely linked genes that tend to be
inherited together. Such a map would be a rich resource, say
researchers, in finding genes that affect diseases and individual
responses to drugs. The project is studying samples from people in
Nigeria, Japan, China, and the United States. Some worry that
analyzing differences by country could be used to suggest racial
* African-Americans need higher doses of one medication used to
treat asthma than Caucasians, suggesting "an inherent
predisposition" in blacks not to absorb the medicine as easily, says
a study in the February issue of the journal Chest.
* A study in the American Journal of Human Genetics showed a
correlation between the way participants identified themselves by
race with groupings of genetic "signposts" among their DNA. "This
shows that people's self-identified race/ ethnicity is a nearly
perfect indicator of their genetic background," said Neil Risch, who
led the study at Stanford University's medical school.
* A study by biotech firm Perlegen Sciences, published in a Feb.
18 edition of Science, found variations in the SNPs of people that
matched their ethnic backgrounds. …