Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The unfortunate consequences of misunderstanding race   posted by p-ter @ 11/20/2007 08:54:00 PM

Reading the links that come in to GNXP, I happened upon this post on what the author referrs to as "scientific racism". This bit caught my eye:
I sat on a grant review committee recently for a national-level competition for multi-million dollar grants of an agency I won't name. The review committee was quite large, probably 25 or more scholars from around the U.S. One of the grant applications that the other reviewers (mostly from the biological sciences) rated the highest was one that proposed to look at the "genetic racial differences among Blacks and whites" to different kinds of treatment for HIV/AIDS. I rated this grant proposal among the lowest I had reviewed because of the methodology: all of the participants in the study would be sorted into the supposedly self-evident categories "Black" and "white" based on self-identification. When I raised this objection among my colleagues in the biological and health sciences, they all blinked hard, and looked at me as if I'd committed some sort of unpleasant faux pas. The chair of the committee finally acquiesced that this was a methodological flaw in the proposal, but the grant was nevertheless awarded millions of dollars.
Biomedical researchers are caught between a rock and a hard place here--none of them enjoy being referred to as scientific racists by their colleagues, I'm sure, but they're also interested in real phenomena.

It's well-known that minorities are less likely to participate in biomedical research (though recent studies suggest this is not because they're less willing). From a geneticist's perspective, the discomfiting implication of this is that tests of a drug's efficacy and safety are done on a range of genetic backgrounds that are strongly biased towards the European mean. That is, drugs are accepted or rejected largely based on how well they perform in a sample of individuals of European descent. This is obviously a problem for the applicability of any results, and the NIH is indeed making minority inclusion a requirement for funding certain projects.

Clearly, none of this would be an issue if everyone responded identically to drugs (or if the correlation between drug response and race were zero). It is, however, an issue. Now, ancestry could be related to drug response through any number of mechanisms, either directly (through genetics) or indirectly (through socioeconomic status, etc). Teasing apart those influences means looking at both of them. But then you have someone like the author, who simply dismisses the correlation altogether! And who evidently has some say in the funding of these studies!

It's worth pointing out that HIV progression does indeed have a genetic component and that certain alleles like CCR5-delta32, which is strongly protective against HIV infection, show marked geographic differences in frequency. A priori, looking for genetic components to differential drug response between populations seems entirely reasonable. Lastly, her main point seems to be that genetic ancestry and self-identified race might not match up. They do.

I'm well-aware that positions like the author's are made possible by people at the other end of the spectrum, who see races as the embodiment of some Platonic ideal. But rejecting idiocy certainly does not require one to embrace blindness!

Related: Cancer and Race

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