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Minorities and Genomics: Issues of Race

Minorities, Race, and Genomics

The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Human Genome Program devoted 3% of its annual Human Genome Project (HGP) budget toward studying the ethical, legal, and social issues (ELSI) surrounding the availability of genetic information. Some of these projects studied potential effects of ELSI, and others sought to educate professionals through literature, conferences, workshops, and multimedia. Among the programs funded by DOE ELSI were educational materials for physicians, educators, students, clergy, and judges and other legal professionals.

DNA studies do not indicate that separate classifiable subspecies (races) exist within modern humans. While different genes for physical traits such as skin and hair color can be identified between individuals, no consistent patterns of genes across the human genome exist to distinguish one race from another. There also is no genetic basis for divisions of human ethnicity. People who have lived in the same geographic region for many generations may have some alleles in common, but no allele will be found in all members of one population and in no members of any other.

In 2004, DOE sponsored a Nature Genetics supplement called, Genetics for the Human Race. This supplement originated from a May 2003 workshop held by the National Human Genome Center at Howard University in Washington DC. The workshop, Human Genome Variation and 'Race', and this special issue of Nature Genetics were proposed by scientists at Howard University and financially supported by the Genome Programs of the US Department of Energy, through its Office of Science; the Irving Harris Foundation; the National Institutes of Health, through the National Human Genome Research Institute; and Howard University. The supplement contains articles based on the presentations at this workshop.

In 2002, DOE sponsored the production of a 24-page genomics insert in the Journal for Minority Medical Students. Distributed in all issues of its spring issue, the supplement covers basic genetics, Zeta Phi Beta's genetics education program, the genetics of sickle cell anemia, medical genetics, and ELSI issues.

Another ELSI project was with the National Educational Foundation of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. The sorority planned and conducted major informational conferences on the Human Genome Project and its impact on minority communities. The conferences covered a variety of topics--from basic genetics and HGP history to gene testing and careers in genetics. Held in Chicago in 2003, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. in 2001, Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus in 2001, Philadelphia in 2000, and New Orleans in 1999, the conferences have sparked numerous follow-up meetings and training sessions led by members of the educational foundation. [Proceedings from the 2000 conference are available online.]

In 1996, DOE HGP partnered with Tuskegee University to present the 3-day conference, “Plain Talk About the Human Genome Project.” The conference brought together internationally recognized scientists, bioethicists, and legal scholars from government, industry, and academia to discuss the ELSI of the use and misuse of genetic information. In rare "both-sides-of-the-argument" discussions, speakers expressed apprehension about the project and the use of its resulting genetic information. Concerns ranged from the fear of actuarial classifications of "genetic exceptionalism" to the burden African Americans would face if they were among those labeled by some as a biological underclass. Focused particularly on how the data might affect African Americans, the meeting also was a vehicle for students from Tuskegee and other historically black institutions to meet with genome scientists, hear the issues, and explore career possibilities in genomics. Proceedings from this conference are available as a book, Plain Talk About the Human Genome Project, 292 pp., 1997. [Contact for book: Tuskegee University, 800/848-9322 (press 4) or 334/727-8525.]

About 150 leaders of minority communities came together in June 1997 at the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) to learn about the Human Genome Project. The DOE HGP-sponsored meeting's goals were to (1) inform minority communities about the Human Genome Project by explaining its potential benefits and clarifying its possible ELSI implications; and (2) make the aspirations and interests of these communities known to genome project scientists and policymakers. This program grew from organizers' concerns about an information vacuum among minorities regarding the genome project and the possibility that suspicions would arise about the project's intent. Proceedings from this conference were combined with an additional essay to form the book, The Human Genome Project and Minority Communities: Ethical, Social, and Political Dilemmas, edited by Raymond Zilinskas (Monterey Institute of International Studies) and Peter Balint (University of Maryland). It addresses the divisions between minority groups and the scientific community, particularly in the area of medical and genetic research. 144 pp., 2000. [Available through bookstores, including online suppliers.]

Human Genome Project 1990–2003

The Human Genome Project (HGP) was an international 13-year effort, 1990 to 2003. Primary goals were to discover the complete set of human genes and make them accessible for further biological study, and determine the complete sequence of DNA bases in the human genome. See Timeline for more HGP history.

Human Genome News

Published from 1989 until 2002, this newsletter facilitated HGP communication, helped prevent duplication of research effort, and informed persons interested in genome research.