Saturday, February 03, 2007

Cancer and race   posted by p-ter @ 2/03/2007 12:30:00 PM

Yann points to a news feature in Science on research by Olufunmilayo Olopade into the genetics behind racial differences in the aggresiveness of certain cancers. Olopade calls the field the "science of disparity", which doesn't have the same ring as "human biodiversity", but hey, you take what you can get.

The research itself is fascinating:
In more than a dozen studies, they've documented that breast tumors in African-American women tend to be more aggressive, less responsive to treatment, and more likely to strike before menopause than breast tumors in whites and other ethnic groups. The differences persist even when statisticians adjust for every variable they can think of, from body weight to education to the cancer treatment given.
But of course, this line of thinking isn't exactly encouraged:
[T]he "science of disparity," as Olopade likes to call it, remains on the periphery of oncology research. Oncologists worry that by focusing on it, they'll be perceived as dismissive of the very real gulf in access to care. And they're generally reluctant to seek physiological distinctions between races. "It's such a contentious issue, and it causes people so much stress to conclude there may be a difference" in biology, says Wendy Woodward, a radiation oncologist who treats breast cancer at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas
Honestly, I find it amazing that intelligent people will still go on record to parrot old arguments like this:
But in tackling the genetics behind breast cancer disparity, researchers must also address what race, a crude construct, really means. "Race is not a scientific category," says Harold Freeman, a cancer surgeon and medical director of the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention in New York City. While he praises Olopade's work, he is skeptical about performing research on populations whose distinctions he considers socially determined. And even if biological differences are relevant, Africans and African Americans "come from the most genetically diverse continent in the world," says Lovell Jones, who conducts health disparities research at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center.
On GNXP, the question, "What's the harm in telling the public we're all the same?" has often come up. Here's the problem: researchers end up believing it, and people like those quoted above end up "skeptical" of legitimate research. I'm inclined to think Dr. Freeman was perhaps misinterpreted-- maybe he never really said that the distinctions between Africans and Europeans are socially determined (an absurd statement, and very different than arguing the definition of race has a social component), but people are capable of extensive self-deception, so you never know.

In any case, there seems to be some lingering animus towards this work, even when done by an African woman with the goal of devloping treatments for a previously overlooked population of patients. That, frankly, is astounding, and I can think of no better "liberal" argument for leaving behind the opposition to the study of human differences.

See also: Race, the current consensus.