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Stanford biomedical ethicist speaks on role of race in scientific research

Stanford University Medical Center

DENVER, Co- Is racial profiling OK in a research setting? Is categorizing groups of people based on genetic characteristics acceptable? These are some of the questions that researchers, led by Mildred Cho, PhD, senior research scholar at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, will tackle during a symposium at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver.

The symposium, titled "Ethical, Social and Policy Implications of Studies of Human Genetic Variation: New Issues from the Human Genome Project," begins at 10:30 a.m. EST Saturday.

Cho said the completion of the "first draft" of the human genome sequence has shifted scientists' attention to the discovery of human genetic variation. Current studies in this area include the examination of the link between genes and disease and the aim to identify genetic variations that contribute to differential effects of drugs, which could lead to the creation of drugs targeted to a specific group of people. Although studies differ in the way they catalogue variation, Cho said they all have the effect of grouping people based on genetic characteristics, often along racial lines, and that this raises ethical and social questions.

"Proponents (of using race as a research variable) assert that genetic differences and racial classification are strongly associated, and so support the use of race in the design of research and the application of its findings," Cho wrote in a recent paper in Science. "Critics cast race as a social construct and counter that putting subjects into racial groups fundamentally misrepresents human genetic variation and hinders research."

The symposium will examine these two positions in the context of current scientific studies of human genetic variation - including haplotype mapping, genetic clustering methods and pharmacogenetic studies - and will discuss these studies' implications on concepts of race and ethnicity. Cho will lead the dialogue and also provide a brief talk on the meaning of different racial and ethnic labels in various research and social settings.

Cho, who sits on the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications advisory board for the Human Genome Project, is an expert in the ethical and social impacts of genetics, including genetic testing, gene therapy and pharmacogenomics research. Her work at Stanford also focuses on geneticists' views of the impacts of their work on society.


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