The color of disease

My ancestors, for instance, left me a family history of heart disease and ADHD. What time bombs did your ancestors leave you, and is it relevant to consider your race or ethnic background in generalizing about them?

Barack Obama as a baby, with his momSickle cell anemia. Lactose intolerance. Melanoma.

There are many conditions which affect one race more than others. They are not entirely race-specific, but the differences are real.

Partly against this backdrop the folks at MIT will host a conference this weekend titled "What's the Use of Race?"

The news peg here is a drug called BiDil, which was found ineffective against heart disease in the 1980s but later licensed by the FDA because it seemed to help black people.

One unfortunate result of this was a host of products coming to market claiming they were based race-specific genetic differences, despite DNA evidence that there is no genetic marker for race at all.

The backlash quickly hit Bidil, which was classed as a "third-tier medication" by Medicare, making it unavailable to much of its target market.

The Public Library of Science synthesized many of the arguments last September, asking questions like how useful racial categories are in medical practice, calling race and ethnicity "imprecise markers" of of what determines health.

My own view is the issue isn't black or white, but there are differences among people which predominate in different populations. Genetic adaptations which helped our ancestors lay time bombs for us, and we all have ancestors.

My ancestors, for instance, left me a family history of heart disease and ADHD. What time bombs did your ancestors leave you, and is it relevant to consider your race or ethnic background in generalizing about them? 

All this is going to be hashed out, again, in Cambridge this weekend, and sometimes the words will grow heated. The impact of race on our lives is not primarily medical, but social, economic, and political. Is any of it scientific?

In a world filled with racial variation, and riffs on a theme of Barack Obama (above) or Tiger Woods, perhaps these questions aren't relevant anymore.

Or are they?