Utne Blogs > Science and Technology

A Prescription for Racism

 by Bennett Gordon


Tags: science, race, health, drugs, BiDil, James Watson, Henry Louis Gates Jr. Science Central, the Root,

JimCrow Waiting RoomThe chances of a disastrous misdiagnosis run high when doctors use race to prescribe treatments. Drugs designed for specific races, like the highly publicized drug BiDil, work on the assumption that some races require different treatments from other races because of genetics. Science Central News reports that medical experts are questioning that assumption, saying that doctors should focus on individual—rather than racial—genetic variations.

The first drug designed specifically for one racial group and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was BiDil, a medication designed for African Americans to combat congestive heart failure (CHF). Beta-blockers are commonly used to treat CHF, but studies have shown that BiDil is a more effective treatment for many African Americans.

The problem, according to Science Central News, is that “those studies were based on people’s self-described race, rather than their actual genetic makeup.” When doctors put too much faith in those studies, ignoring genetic variations inside the African American community, there’s a strong chance that patients wouldn’t get the medications they need to combat the potentially fatal disease.

The motivation behind racially specific prescriptions may have more to do with business than health, according to Utne Reader’s November-December 2007 issue. The article points out that FDA approval of BiDil gave the drug’s producer, NitroMed, a 20-year patent on the medication, giving them a monopoly over the drug’s market. So whether or not the drug works better for African Americans, NitroMed will retain their monopolistic control until the year 2020.

Issues surrounding the drug also play into an ongoing argument over the role of genetics in modern racism. Nobel Prize winner James Watson, who helped discover the double helix, set off a firestorm of controversy last year when he claimed in the Sunday Times that black people might not be as genetically predisposed for intelligence as white people. In an interview for the Root, Henry Louis Gates Jr. sat down with Watson to express some of his fears about the role of genetic research in the future of racism.

Gates walked away from the conversation with an illuminating and frightening conclusion:

That the last great battle over racism will be fought not over access to a lunch counter, or a hotel room, or to the right to vote, or even the right to occupy the White House; it will be fought in a laboratory, in a test tube, under a microscope, in our genome, on the battleground of our DNA.  It is here where we, as a society, will rank and interpret our genetic difference. 

Image from the Library of Congress.