Genetic research changes view of disease in African-Americans

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For the first time, researchers are looking into the genetic makeup of African-Americans and changing the way physicians view minority illnesses.

Researchers recently discovered a gene unique to African-Americans that could explain why asthma affects this population at a higher rate. The gene was identified after nine different research teams pooled data on over 5,000 people with asthma of European-American, African-American, African-Caribbean, and Latino ancestry.

For a disease that affects one in six African-American children, and is responsible for three times more deaths of African-Americans compared to whites, this new discovery is exciting for the black community, experts say.

This study is one of several recent projects. Efforts to understand the genetic makeup of humans started in the mid-1980s, after which the Human Genome Project began. For over a decade, geneticists mapped out all 20,000 to 25,000 genes in the human DNA.

Scientists at the University of Oxford recently focused their genetic research on minority populations and were surprised to find glaring differences between African-Americans and those of non-African descent.

“This is more rationale as to why we need to explore disease across other populations,” says Dr. Rick Kittles, Director of the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Because, he adds, genetic researchers historically only studied whites.

This year, Kittles and his team looked at 6,400 men with prostate cancer and discovered a gene more prevalent among African-American men. His hope is that additional genetic research will lead to a better understanding of this illness that affects one in five black men, killing one in 20 at a rate much higher than white men.

Uncovering these disease- and race-specific genes may eventually allow physicians to screen African-Americans years before these diseases develop. However, cost will make widespread testing difficult.

With one in four African-American living in poverty, one in five uninsured, and most with limited access to care, the costly genetic screening could overlook the populations it is created for.

“We have to be aggressive and advocate on several levels,” Kittles says. “You see these tests at the boutique clinics where patients are highly insured or over-insured. But, everybody should benefit.”

However, Kittles cautions that this research is simply the first step and just one part of the mystery of minority health disparities. Despite what his team has found, he believes that many health disparities are not influenced solely by genetics.

Diseases like asthma have long been linked to poverty, urban areas, problems with access to health care and environmental concerns like pollution or secondhand smoke. Yet, these new advances raise questions about how much weight those factors have compared to genetic causes.

To answer this question, Dr. Charles Rotimi at the Center for Research on Genomics and Global Health leads a team responsible for uncovering the genetics of obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes — three conditions that affect and kill African-Americans more than any other group. Their most recent project involves identifying the roles of both lifestyle and genes with respect to risk.

Some public health advocates are concerned about the ethics behind genetic testing of African-Americans and the possibility of discrimination. However, geneticists seem to agree that this type of research is long overdue in this population and has the potential to answer many questions about African-Americans and life-threatening disease.