Tuesday, 30 July 2019 05:49

Race Science: A new outlook towards the study of human genetics independent of the human race

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There is a thin line between finding genetic differences amongst individuals (this primarily includes the research on human diversity) and constructing these genetic differences across groups (this involves our biased categorisation of the human population on basis of their colour, the shape of eyes, etc.) by making conscious choices!

“The undeniable truth is ‘Race’ does not exist biologically; human genetics does!”

In simple words, race is a social construct without any biological meaning. The differentiation categorised as “Race” does not exist in nature, it is created by human choice!

Before we proceed, let us look at how the clinical predictions based on race are wrongly used.

Across the world today, skin colour is highly variable. The study on genetics is greatly influenced by race which differentiates people as “white” and “black”. It is strongly believed that the “whites” are resistant to a few diseases which are prominent in the “blacks”. And that the “blacks” are stronger when it comes to few ancestral adaptations that make them prone to few major diseases found in the “whites”. 

The British Chinese people are known to have a higher rates of asthma. As for sickle cell, it is rare in white Americans. Similarly, cystic fibrosis is under-diagnosed in people of African ancestry because it is thought of as a ‘white’ disease. Diabetes has become an epidemic in South Asia. Hypertension, persistently high blood pressure, is strongly associated with being black according to research in the US and the UK. 

Now, for our better understanding, let us segregate and tackle the above-stated conditions understandably and smartly. 

The colour variation which is a foundation for the concept of race is just a natural adaptation. The difference in the skin tone closely correlates with latitudes. Scorching sunlight near the equator makes dark skin a useful shield against the ultraviolet radiation; towards the poles, where the problem is little sunlight, paler skin promotes the production of vitamin D. 

The mere assumption that every British Chinese patient will be predisposed to asthma cannot be the right way to diagnose or treat a health condition. Each person is different from the next. While sickle cell anaemia is rare in white Americans, it does not have a direct correlation to skin colour or ethnicity. Instead, it is related to malaria. Those with the sickle cell mutation enjoy some protection against that disease but its also true that it’s found in people of all complexions with roots in regions of the world in which malaria is common. Proceeding to diabetes, it is an adverse side effect of unhealthy diet and sedentary lifestyles due to unprecedented economic growth in millions of Indian families. Living in an urban environment is associated with higher blood pressure with the most significant risk factor being high usage of salt. Most of the population facing higher blood pressure belongs to the US and the UK and is “white”. It is because their diets have traditionally been lower in fruit and vegetables and higher in fatty meat and salt. 

The framing of race as an essential genetic variable dominates the biomedical landscape. It is so woven into medical frames of understanding that it’s assumed to be the main player when it comes to rationalising racial differences! 

But it's unfair to choose somebody's race as a clinical prediction and conclude as to how different races respond in different ways to drugs and medical procedures!  Few effective drugs that do wonders in one race can be completely ineffective in another. 

Then, what when the racial concept is thrown out? What other variables should be considered in the study of ‘Race Science’? 

The research has come to a stage where it can be stated openly that under clinical settings, the heterogeneous nature of racial groups is questionable. So, despite the widespread use of race in scientific research, it is now the most controversial tool for making sense of human diversity. 

Further studies related to human genetics should use concepts like ancestry instead of the race.  Ancestry is a process-based concept that helps us understand the admixing events that lead to one’s existence. It’s also a statement about an individual's relationship to other individuals in their genealogical history. Thus, it is a very personal understanding of one's genomic heritage. 

In the past decade, the ability to sequence DNA from tumour tissue has fuelled major advances in how cancer is treated, ushering in an era of medicine known as precision oncology, in which doctors use genetic data to match cancer patients to drugs that target the specific cell mutations underlying their disease. This major advancement in the research was possible only when the study of “ancestry” was opted over “race”!  Moving ahead, someday the field of human genetic research might become independent of the race.

The voice behind this article is Ashwini Gaikwad, Content Writer, Investronaut.

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