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Year in Review: Race and medicine: Bedfellows again? (Part 2 of 5)

Genetic Crossroads
December 14th, 2006

Just a few short years ago, prominent genetic scientists proclaimed that the newly sequenced human genome showed once and for all that "[r]ace is a social concept, not a scientific one." Many welcomed such statements. Some had scientific hesitations about them. Drug companies, supplement makers, and their marketing departments had plans.

In 2005, the FDA approved the first racially specific drug, BiDil, to treat heart failure in African-Americans. Then this past spring, a small U.S. company called GenSpec launched a targeted advertising campaign for racially specific multi-vitamins and weight loss pills in publications including Sports Illustrated Latino, Hispanic, Latina, Ebony, Black Enterprise and Jet.

The new "racial pharmacy" was debated at two national conferences this year, one sponsored by the Center of Excellence for Nutritional Genomics, the other by the Center for the Study of Diversity in Science, Technology, and Medicine at MIT.

Concerns about the dangers of a resurgent genetic reductionism were widely expressed, including by CGS's Osagie Obasogie and UC Berkeley professor David Winickoff. They write, "Medicine should not be color blind, but it also should not be too quick to use race as a proxy for genes…Sensible oversight now may very well prevent serious harms later. History shows that race and medicine can be deadly bedfellows."


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