June 2003


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"S. E. Anderson" <[log in to unmask]>
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Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 23 Jun 2003 03:44:52 -0700
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by Ron Walters

June 7, 2003

That officials at Howard University Medical School have decided
to collect DNA samples of approximately 25,000 African Americans
over the next five years is welcome news. African Americans suffer
from diseases such as stroke, hypertension, diabetes and others
at a higher rate than Whites. African Americans are not, however,
generally represented in the pools from which samples are taken
for use in research to find cures for these diseases.

Dr. Marion Gray Secundy, the late sister of former Rep. William
Gray, who was a medical ethicist at the Howard University Medical
School, sponsored a conference in 1999 on the inclusion of Blacks
in genetic testing. Secundy assumed that Blacks should be included
in clinical trials as medical researchers explore cures for various
diseases, an effort that will grow in scope and intensity now
that the human genome has been decoded. The decoding of the human
genome at the National Institutes of Health was completed two
years sooner than expected and at a cost of $400 million less
than budgeted because of advances in computer technology and
biomedical research.

We have entered an era in which the molecular genetic sciences
have made some astounding linkages to a few diseases, giving
us a hint of what is to come. But it also has been suggested
that by understanding the genetic structure of an individual,
one also can project aspects of that person's behavior. Already,
some corporations are interested in genetic screening for their
employees that they might determine in advance what diseases
or other maladies their workers may exhibit. This brings up the
issue of privacy of medical records and whether it is lawful
for corporations to insist that prospective employees take a
blood test.

This practice would be troublesome because it proposes that we
live in a world where our biological make-up might be used to
predict certain behaviors, such as various forms of criminality
and aggression. In fact, there already have been studies funded
by the National Institutes of Health on whether violence or aggression
in some youths is inherited, with the research focused on Black
and Hispanic children.

In 1993, there was a project in the Department of Health and
Human Services known as the "violence initiative." HHS Secretary
Louis Sullivan, an African American, had rounded up all the programs
spread throughout the large agency and put them under one programmatic
tent to emphasize the fact that he and the president were concerned
about this issue. The impetus driving this initiative was the
violence emanating from the drug trade, which fostered not only
a high murder rate, but also high incarceration rate for Black
and Hispanics youth.

The dangerous part of this project was that the National Institute
of Mental Health was doing research to find genetic markers for
certain behaviors. The head of the institute, Dr. Richard Goodwin,
said that progress on finding a solution to violence among youth
was within reach. All that was needed was to find the genetic
marker for violence on the gene, determine who was susceptible
to violent or aggressive behavior and then medicalize the carrier
before the age of 5.

This caused a great uproar. Goodwin was called before the Congressional
Black Caucus to explain what he meant. As it turned out, his
comment revealed what was occurring in the scientific establishment.

Blacks have a long history of distrusting the medical establishment,
especially for the reason cited above. But there are other reasons,
among them the syphilis experiment at Tuskegee, Ala., before
World War II and the attempt to study the brains of Blacks who
were active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

If Howard University, an institution trusted by Blacks, is involved
in collecting and preserving DNA records and monitoring their
use for fairness, then the potential medical advances to benefit
Blacks may have a chance.

An important by-product of this project is that Howard's DNA
researchers may also find clues to the origins of many African
Americans, a feat that many in the reparations movement hope
will occur.

Ron Walters is a distinguished leadership scholar, director of
the African American Leadership Institute and professor of government
and politics at the University of Maryland-College Park.