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African American genetic database plans unveiled

2 June 2003
By BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 210

The first large-scale collection of genetic information from African Americans will be based at Howard University in Chicago, officials announced last week. It plans to collect DNA samples and medical information from 25,000 black people, mainly patients at hospitals associated with the Howard College of Medicine. The database project organisers claim that this knowledge could help research into diseases such as asthma, diabetes and prostate cancer, which are more common in African Americans than either the white American or black African populations.

Floyd J Malveaux, dean of the medical school, said that in the past, the health concerns of black people had often not received enough attention. 'We want to make sure as genetics moves forward, as information is collected, as data is being mined, that we are part of that process' he said. A DNA repository that focuses specifically on the black population is 'a good idea' according to Michael J Pellini, president of genetic database firm Genetics Collaborative. 'I can't think of another biobank or another database that has a very significant African American population' he said. But sceptics such as sociologist Troy Duster, of New York University, doubt that the Howard database will reveal much of medical value. He said that a good study of race, genetics and medicine 'would look at a fact, like blacks have a higher rate of prostate cancer, and not just look for genetic variants to explain that', but also consider lifestyle and environmental factors. Medical geneticist Gilbert S Omenn of the University of Michigan agrees that it would be crucial to include non-genetic information such as neighbourhood environment, history of smoking and use of medicines and dietary supplements. He claimed that geneticists were in a 'Catch 22' situation, as they are often accused of neglecting the black population in clinical studies, 'but if we include them it carries all these perceptions of racism, so it's tricky' he said.

Another large-scale genetics project, aimed at identifying genes involved in common illnesses such as cancer and heart disease, was announced by the Center for the Advancement of Genomics, in Rockville, Maryland and Duke University last week. Genome scientist Craig Venter, president of the Maryland centre, said that he plans to look for gene changes in many patients, in a new facility capable of sequencing 48 billion letters of DNA code a year. The Genomic-Based Prospective Medicine project will look at genes likely to be involved in diseases, such as the 100 or so thought to play a role in heart disease, in large numbers of patients.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Howard U. plans genetics database
The Washington Post |  28 May 2003
Large DNA file to help track illness in blacks
The New York Times |  27 May 2003
Portrait of a serial sequencer
Nature |  30 May 2003
Project will seek to uncover genetic roots of major diseases
The New York Times |  29 May 2003
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