The Dangers of Race-Based Medicine
An analysis of new drug therapies specifically targeted towards African American populations with hypertension
I. Introduction to Contemporary Race-Based Therapeutics
On November 11th, 2004, NitroMed, a Massachusetts based pharmaceutical company published a study on the effects of a new drug called BiDil in treating heart failure among African Americans in the New England Journal of Medicine (Taylor 2049). Since announcing the study, NitroMed's research has sparked controversy surrounding the ethical implications and scientific evidence of race-based medicine. This study marks a breakthrough in race-based drug treatments as the first pharmaceutical ever researched, endorsed and targeted for a single ethnic group (Pollack 1). The racially-specific pharmaceutical initiative is a product of tremendous government funding allotted by the Clinton administration to the Human Genome Project at the turn of the millennium. Since then, much medical research has focused on understanding the human genome in search of genetic explanations for health problems while funding and interest have decreased in social-related health research and medical programs for poor and underserved populations (Braun 162). NitroMed's study marks a growing movement that has begun to cite genetic makeup, specifically race-related genetic makeup, rather than environmental or other confounding factors as the source of disease. This shift in presumed cause of health-related problems raises many troubling implications. With race-based therapeutics comes the assumption that there are biological differences between races. The dangers of such implications are vast, the most pressing problem being the ambiguity of race, particularly with regard to genetic composition. Considerable studies have demonstrated the lack of genotypic correlations among members of a given race. Similarly, socioeconomic and other confounding variables have a profound impact on health and thus must be considered in the discussion of race-based therapeutics and research. This tension between social and biological conceptions of race is now at the forefront of discussion among scientific scholars seeking explanations for the relationship of disease and ethnicity (Foster 844). The ultimate goal of pharmacogenomics, as stated by Henig, "would be for everyone's genome to be analyzed individually so that doctors could gauge how much of a medication, and which type, is most likely to work for a specific patient" (3). Race-based medications seem highly personalized to the consumer but are simply a short cut to the goal of individually-specific medication. Marketing drugs targeted at particular phenotypes such as race is incredibly lucrative for pharmaceutical companies. For NitroMed, this factor will be especially important because African Americans have far higher cases of hypertension than whites while tending to be less responsive to normal treatments than their white counterparts. When the scientific community begins to spread unfounded hypotheses regarding genetic differences between races, particularly differences that attribute poorer health or increased susceptibility to disease among minority groups, a Pandora's Box is opened of potential dangers which can aid proponents of racist doctrines. Historically, scientific studies that sought to prove biological differences among races have led to violently racist movements like slavery, colonialism, and the Holocaust. Hence, as other pharmaceutical companies follow NitroMed's path and begin marketing drugs targeted for specific racial groups, the dangers of such race-based therapeutics must be acknowledged. Finally, advocates of race-based medicine claim that the scientific underpinnings are irrelevant if a medication is proven to be effective for a particular group. In such a way, race-based medicine is a short-term solution, treating the symptoms of race-related disease without...
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