Race, medicine and politics

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In 2005, the United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA) formally approved the world’s first race-based medicine, BiDil. BiDil is a drug targeted at African-Americans with heart disease, that is, it is biologically targeted at a racial group.

Yet, as an introductory anthropology text will tell you, there is no biological basis for race.

The story of how this state of affairs came to be–and the relationship between politics, medicine and race–is told in a new article in Scientific American.

Perhaps most problematically, the patent award and FDA approval of BiDil have given the imprimatur of the federal government to using race as a genetic category. Since the inception of the Human Genome Project, scientists have worked hard to ensure that the biological knowledge emerging from advances in genetic research is not used inappropriately to make socially constructed racial categories appear biologically given or natural. As a 2001 editorial in the journal Nature Genetics put it, “scientists have long been saying that at the genetic level there is more variation between two individuals in the same population than between populations and that there is no biological basis for ‘race.’” More recently, an editorial in Nature Biotechnology asserted that “race is simply a poor proxy for the environmental and genetic causes of disease or drug response…. Pooling people in race silos is akin to zoologists grouping raccoons, tigers and okapis on the basis that they are all stripey.”

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