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Building Bridges
UC Davis-CHORI Conference on Genomics, Health & Race Disparities a Shining Success

On August 18th and 19th, in this first-ever, two-day event, the UC Davis-CHORI Center of Excellence in Nutritional Genomics lit up the bay area by bringing together the country’s leading researchers to engage in a national dialogue on the spectrum of issues connected to race and genomics as it relates to health disparities.

Organized by Ronald Krauss, MD, Senior Scientist at CHORI, and sponsored by the National Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities Center for Excellence in Nutritional Genomics, the conference participants included such big-name participants as Nicholas Wade, the science writer for the New York Times, and Jeffrey Drazen, MD, the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and Harvard University.

Dr. Krauss is one of many researchers who recognized the need for an open discussion that addresses both the science behind the genetics as well as the ethical and social issues that arise from the application of that science in society. As such, in addition to the community of genetic researchers, the conference also hosted leading anthropologists and sociologists.

“The biggest concern people have is discrimination,” Dr. Krauss explains, “using the genetic information in a discriminatory way, or assuming that one can infer genetic differences from skin color, for example. Of course, we know that’s not scientifically true or ethically feasible, but that sometimes leads to concerns for whether this research should be done at all.”

The conference provided the unique opportunity for an interdisciplinary dialogue on these issues, and in the end, participants came away from the conference with a greater understanding and awareness, both of the importance of the research, and of the ethical issues involved.

“The whole structure of our genome, and the way our genome works to influence all of our functions as humans absolutely does differ considerably among populations,” explains Dr. Krauss, “yet we have to recognize that while those genes and collections of genes are still relevant to our understanding of health needs and outcomes, racial characteristics will become less and less useful as descriptors.”

In fact, over two days-worth of presentations, what became clear was that race as applied to genetics can be a crude, imprecise and often an inaccurate designation that may relate to certain genetic markers without providing all the information needed.

Reaching consensus on how to move forward with new language and descriptors robust enough for science of the 21st century proved more challenging. Consensus was never the goal, however: rather, the conference provided an unparalleled opportunity to open the door for innovative approaches, solutions and conversations.

“I don’t think that such a diverse group with important things to say about this issue had ever been brought together to talk to each other as we were able to at this conference,” says Dr. Krauss. “Many people, from many different perspectives, were able to raise questions and concerns, and the dialogue extended to participants as well as speakers. I think that’s what made it such a phenomenal experience.”

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Monday, May 16, 2011 11:33 PM

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