Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

As I’ve written before, the field of human genetics has a diversity problem. Too many study cohorts consists of Europeans and Americans of European descent. This means that we’re mainly learning about genetic risk factors for whites, and thus African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans won’t benefit as much from advances in genetically informed medicine.

The solution is to do genetic studies on more diverse cohorts. But when you do that, you run into another problem: people assume that genetic studies of non-whites are motivated by … bad stereotypes, if not outright racism.

A case in point: Dylan Matthews tweeted out a PLOS Genetics paper, with the admittedly striking finding that some African Americans carry a genetic variant linked with an increased preference for menthol cigarettes:

To be clear, I’m not at all suggesting Matthews himself was impugning the authors’ motives. But the replies mocked the study and suggested that this was somehow bad science… as far as I can tell, because it draws a link between genetics and behavior in African Americans.

But this is exactly what a diverse science of human genetics looks like. All sorts of smoking behaviors have genetic links, and scientists (including some of my WashU colleagues) study them because they have the potential to help people live healthier lives. Why do some people quit smoking, while others try and fail? Should the FDA ban menthol cigarettes, as it has proposed to do ?

Genetic studies can help answer those questions. Genetic links with health-related behaviors are pervasive, and many are specific to particular populations. If we want genetics to not just benefit whites, we need studies like this one.


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