FDA Approves First Racially Targeted Drug
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved BiDil, a drug created especially to treat heart failure among blacks. This has set off the usual round of debates as to whether “race” even exists.
Now that the FDA has for the first time approved a drug specifically for blacks, medical experts are sure to debate the implications, with some questioning the validity of medical research that focuses on race. “There are many, many who claim these use of (racial) categories may not have any biological meaning, only social meaning, and basing medical decisions on them may be problematic,” said David Magnus, director of the Stanford Medical Center for Biomedical Ethics.
For example, Magnus said, researchers could also look at whether a particular drug worked more effectively on Catholics than Protestants. The more categories explored, the more likely one can find data showing that one category of people is helped more than the others when it comes to a particular medicine, he said. “But the more we know genetically, the more we know these social categories don’t correspond to genetic groups,” Magnus said.
The Food and Drug Administration approved the drug BiDil on Thursday for the treatment of heart failure in black Americans, calling it a step toward “the promise of personalized medicine.”
In sociology circles, the question of “race” is a hugely controversial subject. Biologists, too, argue that there is no quantifiable thing in “race” because the range of genetic variation within a given group always overlaps with others. Social scientists use that to argue that “race” is a mere social construct rather than a reality.
Regardless, there definitely seem to be quantifiable medical differences between racial groups even when controlling for lifestyle factors. If they have the ability to do so, it is incumbent upon physicians and medical researchers to address that fact. If the heart drugs designed to help caucasians work less well for blacks and they can design a drug that works better for blacks, it would be incomprehensibly cruel not to prescribe it.
“Race” is a crude category to be sure. One presumes that our understanding of genetic differences will improve over time and our ability to target the incredible variation within the species will become much more precise than “black person” versus “white person.” Until then, though, this strikes me as a good first step.