Medicine and Race

Also in the Economist, medicine factors in race:

LAST month researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Mississippi Medical Centre published a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine. They had studied three versions (or alleles, as they are known) of a gene called PCSK9. This gene helps clear the blood of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), one of the chemical packages used to transport cholesterol around the body. Raised levels of LDL are associated with heart disease. The effect of all three types of PCSK9 studied by Jonathan Cohen and his colleagues was to lower the LDL in a person’s bloodstream by between 15% and 28%, and coronary heart disease by between 47% and 88%, compared with people with more common alleles of the gene.

Such studies happen all the time and are normally unremarkable. But this was part of a growing trend to study individuals from different racial groups and to analyse the data separately for each group. The researchers asked the people who took part in the study which race they thought they belonged to and this extra information allowed them to uncover more detail about the risk that PCSK9 poses to everyone.

Yet race and biology are uncomfortable bedfellows. Any suggestion of systematic biological differences between groups of people from different parts of the world—beyond the superficially obvious ones of skin colour and anatomy—is almost certain to raise hackles.