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February 23, 2016

Drexel, Penn professors: Race should no longer be used in genetic research

Professors argue that racial classifications are confusing, inaccurate and unscientific

Professors from Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania have called for an end to the use of race in genetic research, arguing that classifying people by race instead of ethnicity or ancestry is confusing, inaccurate and unscientific.

"Human races are incredibly genetically diverse, so to make an assumption that an individual in a larger racial group is going to share the same genes as everyone in that group is inaccurate," said Michael Yudell, a professor at Drexel's School of Public Health.

In a paper published this month in Science magazine, Yudell joined law professor Dorothy Roberts and biologists Sarah Tishkoff and Rob DeSalle in calling for the scientific community to find an alternative to using race in genetic studies. Roberts and Tishkoff both teach at Penn.

The professors have no problem with studying race as a social or cultural concept, but the issue with using it in genetic research is that there are no clear genetic markers of race. 

"What is race? Nobody can ever define it, there's no clear-cut definition. Right there should be a clue that there's a problem," said Tishkoff.

For example, Tishkoff has spent 15 years studying genetic diversity in Africa, but she has never found a unique gene shared by everyone across the continent.

"There's more diversity in Africa than you'll see almost across the entire globe. So there's no such thing as a typical African individual or population," she said.

Relying too much on racial categories can lead to dangerous medical errors. For example, doctors may fail to diagnose sickle cell anemia in a white person, or the same thing may happen to an African-American with cystic fibrosis. 

Tishkoff stresses that researchers should still investigate the link between ancestry and genes, especially when looking at a person's risk for certain diseases. However, with new technologies making it much easier to sequence someone's genome, she argues that there's no need to make assumptions based on skin color.

"People who self-identify as Hispanic or who might get classified in the U.S. Census as Hispanic could have varying amounts of African ancestry, European ancestry and Native American ancestry. That's one of the most variable classifications that you can have," she pointed out.

The debate over racial classifications in biology is hardly new. It's raged since at least 1906, when sociologist and civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois argued that race is not a scientific category.

What the professors want is for a national scientific panel to finally put the debate to rest. They are calling for the National Academies of Sciences to convene an interdisciplinary task force, discuss the topic for at least a year and then publish a set of guidelines for alternatives to using race in biological research.

"We want to see this happen over two years, bringing together experts to conduct focus groups," said Yudell.

He and his colleagues have already begun discussions with the National Academies and with the editors of scientific journals, urging them to change their standards for accepting studies.

The Drexel professor is hopeful that the scientific community can come to a consensus over one simple idea: "Genetics does not support the classification of people into discrete racial groups."

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