NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Ignoring Race May Be Dangerous to Health

July 30, 2002

Neil Risch of Stanford University, a leader in the field of genetics, contends that race is helpful for understanding ethnic differences in disease and responses to disease.

His position was prompted by an editorial last year in the New England Journal of Medicine asserting that "'race' is biologically meaningless," and one in Nature Genetics warning of the "confusion and potential harmful effects of using 'race' as a variable in medical research."

  • In large part, the controversy stems from advances in DNA research streaming from the Human Genome Project -- and trying to reconcile the fact that the pattern of DNA data differs among ethnic groups.
  • All humans have the bulk of their genetic heritage in common and possess the same set of genes.
  • But because of mutations -- or changes in DNA -- each gene comes in slightly different versions, and some of them are more common in one ethnic group than another.
  • These genetic differences often have medical significance -- since some occur among genes that affect susceptibility to disease and the response to drugs.

For example, a mutation that causes hemochromatosis, a disorder of iron metabolism, is rare or absent among Indians and Chinese, but occurs in 7.5 percent of Swedes. Differences involving susceptibility to sickle cell anemia and lactose intolerance have been noted among ethnic groups and races.

Risch points out that many studies have shown that these differences cluster into five major groups, which are simply the world's major continental areas and the people who once bred in them in isolation -- sub-Saharan Africans; Caucasians, including people from Europe, the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East; Asians; Pacific Islanders and native Americans.

Even Risch's critics admit that his views should be respected and studied further -- even if they would rather avoid the subject.

Source: Nicholas Wade, "Race Is Seen as Real Guide to Track Roots of Disease," New York Times, July 30, 2002.

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