Race and genes: Does capitalism make you sick?

By Jackie Stevens

By Salon Staff
Published August 15, 2000 7:42PM (EDT)

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As a geneticist, I read this story with a great deal of interest. I was disappointed. There was a lot of throwing around of words like race, but very little explanation of the issues. I would recommend that readers only read the last two paragraphs, because that is where almost all of the useful information is.

It would have been simple for the author to explain more. For example, the reason for the discovery of a "Jewish" breast cancer gene was because there was a group of Jews that had excellent genealogical and medical records, was highly inbred, was descended from a fairly small group of people and had a very high rate of breast cancer -- the perfect situation for finding a "breast cancer gene."

By the way, it is worth noting that the mutation the researchers found does not seem to cause cancer in mice or in other human populations.

-- John Shannonhouse

The idea that the identification of genes involved in the rare familial types of otherwise common diseases is not useful is simply incorrect. From Alzheimer's disease to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [Lou Gehrig's disease], the identification of the genes involved has led to great strides in understanding the disease, for both genetic and spontaneous patients. While it is true that many diseases have more environmental than genetic causes, we molecular biologists look for the genes involved because if we can find those genes, we have an excellent opportunity to begin to understand the mechanisms related to the onset of that disease. The complex interactions of the thousands of environmental factors that a human is exposed to throughout the course of development, birth and life span is impossible to reproduce in a laboratory setting. One or two fault genes are more readily studied.

We are simply trying to understand the interactions of our genes and our environments in the most time- and resource-effective way at our current stage of scientific progress. The focus on the genes is because the mutations that can be found are much less subject to the errors in trying to fully comprehend the various environments to which one can be exposed. In the end, we are simply using the best tools we have to make as much progress as possible.

-- Dr. Todd A. Carter

Salon Staff

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