The Persistence of Race in Biotech Patenting and Drug Development

For those of you in the Edmonton area, the Health Law Institute at the U of A will be hosting a lecture on race and drug development on March 25th.

Despite the fact that race as a topic of discussion seems to have fallen off the radar of many disciplines over the past few years, it remains a hotly debated topic in the medical sciences. It is astounding how poorly conceived the idea of race is, yet how widely accepted it remains. For example, the PBS program Faces of America traces the biological ancestry of 12 celebrities. In the episode that I saw last night, the discussion revolved around how accurately genetics can be used to determined which geographic racial group one belongs to, in terms of gene frequencies. Each of the celebrities was told how much, in percentages, of their genes came from Europe, Asia, or Africa.

When using such broadly defined categories, how can an assessment not be accurate? As usual, these simple geographic referents became reduced to Black/White, with some reference to Asians and Native Americans being all the same. The most telling part of the program is when host’s genome had been decoded, and his genetic “profile” was revealed, which included discussion of the risk factors for various diseases that were determined by the analysis. The question asked was do you really want to know what diseases you might inevitably develop? If we can continue to convince people that they belong to artificial racial groups, then drug therapies can be marketed to greatest number of people where the risk factors for various diseases can be linked to racial groups. When we reduce human genetic variation to three basic categories, we get a wildly distorted view of how we actually differ biologically, and the real patterns that lie beneath the surface . The end result is selling people medications that they likely will not need.

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