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The molecular reinscription of race: unanticipated issues in biotechnology and forensic science

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In the last five years, there has been a considerable increase in the number of published articles documenting the health disparities between the majority white population and various other racially designated groups in the United States. This was a direct result of the congressional mandate given to the National Institutes of Health in 2000 to conduct research and report findings on the topic. It was inevitable that reports of patterned disparities between racially designated groups would resuscitate an old debate about whether there were important biological differences between such groups. There is now a new role in this debate for biotechnology firms committed to finding markets for pharmaceutical products that have failed to get past clinical trials aimed at the general population. By refocusing marketing strategy on racially designated populations, the industry has gathered support for medicines that were previously racially neutral’. And this strategy has in turn inspired strange bedfellow’ support from clinicians who claim selective advantage for their patients from such racialized medicine’. There has been a parallel development in forensic science. There are new claims that DNA analysis of crime scene data will assist criminal investigations by narrowing the search for suspects along racial lines. Because these tests are privately conducted, it is not possible for critics to assess the sampling procedure or the overall methodology that is used in categorizing human populations by race. Nonetheless, these claims dovetail with those in pharmacogenomics that assert the importance of patterns in the DNA for predicting’ ethnic and racial membership. In sum, these developments are ushering in an era of the molecular reinscription of race in the biological sciences.

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Keywords: DNA databanks; biobanks; forensic science; health disparities; human genome; race; racial medicine

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2006-09-01

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