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Looking for racial differences in our genes
Author: Kathryn Kirkland
Posted: January 19, 2005

Last summer, investigators called an early end to a study of African American men and women who were being treated for heart failure with the drug BiDil. They found the drug so effective they felt it would be unethical to slow its approval for African Americans. BiDil was rejected five years ago by the FDA because it was found to be ineffective for the general public. Now it is up for re-approval and will probably become one of the country’s first race-based medicines.

Meanwhile, police crime labs are using a new tool for finding suspects. They can scan DNA evidence to determine a suspect’s long-ago continent of origin, which leads them to a suspect’s likely race.

Improving health and catching criminals are serious reasons for pursuing the genetics of race, but exploring the ways that blacks, whites, Asians, and Native Americans are biologically different has many scientists and policy makers worried. Could genetic information on race inadvertently be used to stigmatize, isolate, or categorize the races?

The issues surrounding racial genetics will be debated at a free public symposium, Genetic Testing, Privacy and Race, March 31, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in 75 Lincoln Hall. Panelists will examine two types of cases: genetic testing in the criminal justice system and in the medicalization of race.

Lead panelist for the symposium is Troy Duster, professor of sociology at University of California, Berkeley, and at New York University. As a sociologist he argues that race is a cultural construct; it may have biological dimensions but nothing significant enough to overshadow the social context. Other panelists include medical genetic and anthropology faculty from Oregon Health & Science University and a Portland public defense attorney. A moral philosophy professor from Pacific University will serve as moderator.

For more information about the Genetic Testing, Privacy and Race symposium, contact the PSU Department of Philosophy at 503-725-3524.