An Icelandic company claims it has isolated a genetic feature in African Americans that raises their risk of heart attack by 250 percent. The news has raised hopes for a solution. But it has also raised some anxiety about what is being called "race-based medicine."
Social conventions aside, it's a well-documented fact that some races are more prone to certain ailments. The degree of diabetes in the Native American population is alarming. Lactose intolerance shows up regularly in Hispanics and sickle-cell anemia and blacks have been linked for decades. Medical science has made in-roads in all three.
The controversy comes from the Icelandic company DeCode Genetics wanting to test a new heart attack drug exclusively on people of African descent. The idea is to get a controlled sample to keep variables at bay. Old fears have surfaced, of course. Any time one race is severed from the general population for "special treatment," historically that treatment has led to abuses. And at a time when American minorities are working hard to become integrated into the mainstream, popping them out for "isolated observation" has an eerie feel.
The concerns are real and valid. But we take the position of other scientists in saying it is a "gene problem" not a "race problem." Science must and will move ahead. If something can be known, researchers are determined to know it. And, for the most part, that attitude has helped humanity move ahead. We urge black leaders especially the Association of Black Cardiologists to study the proposals carefully and, if they see any benefit, allow the tests to move ahead. Yes, it is a vulnerable position. But we believe the possible miracles outweigh the fear of malevolence.
American history is overcast with race problems. Yet the country seems now at a point where blatant disregard for a person's humanity is dealt with harshly. In recent years, in fact, the media has made racial discrimination a focus of its watchdog duties. Abuses still abound; but they no longer have the unspoken sanction of other Americans.
Trust is hard to come by when there is a history of broken trust. Having faith is always a risk.
But we feel if thousands of black Americans in the future can look back in good health and be glad that those before took a risk for them, that will be a good thing. And if other segments of the population can look back and be glad the race card was never dealt when it came to medicine, that will also be satisfying.