DNA-Based Medicine: Race Emerges in Debate

Patents for genetic-screening tests rejected because of issues involving race.

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Race is emerging as a factor in DNA-based medicine. (Thinkstock)

Rob Stein of the Washington Post is reporting that federal examiners have rejected patents for genetic-screening tests because the applicants did not explore their effectiveness for different races, adding to the debate about whether race has scientific validity in modern DNA-based medicine.

Some geneticists, sociologists and bioethicists argue that "black," "white," "Asian" and "Hispanic" are antiquated categories that threaten to revive prejudices. Others, however, say that meaningful DNA variations can track racial lines and that ignoring them could deny many benefits of "personalized medicine," which aims to develop tests and treatments tailored to a person's genetic makeup.

Some believe that it is the genetic marker that is important, not the race, while others believe that because race is a "fuzzy" or socially constructed category, it has no bearing on DNA-based medicine.

Stein reports that officials at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office say they do not require applicants to delineate how well any genetic tests -- including those looking for an increased risk for diseases -- work by race. A search of more than 3 million patents over the past 20 years found only 37 that included any reference to race, they said.

Essentially, patents are being rejected unless they are tested on diverse groups of people. This is a slippery slope because although race is a social factor, genetic markers are not. Not approving a patent that could help a specific racial group that suffers disproportionately from certain diseases can have dire consequences for that racial group.

Yes, the allocation of resources based on race is problematic, but the elimination of DNA-based medicines on the basis of what amounts to semantics is more problematic. No, we don't want a repeat of the eugenics controversies of the past, but should future populations needing medical solutions be penalized because of it?

Read more at the Washington Post.

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