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Genetic Studies for Asthma Use Mostly White Patients, Results May Not Apply to Black Children At All

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A sweeping study of the genetic and environmental causes of asthma in African-American children found that the majority of previous clinical trials focused on white patients, leading researchers to question whether known risk factors apply to Black children at all, MedicalXpress reports.

“Almost all the genetic studies of asthma have been done using white patients only, but you can’t assume these results will apply to other ethnic groups,” senior author Esteban Burchard, researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, said. “This paper is an important first step towards truly understanding the biology of asthma in African-Americans.”

Researchers studied over 800 African-American children with asthma and found that just 5 percent of genetic variations previously associated with asthma in whites were present in Blacks.

Over 14 percent of Black children have asthma, compared to 8 percent of white children, according to a National Health Interview survey.

The study uncovered multiple risk factors unique to the study’s African-American children, along with an entirely new variant in one gene, in particular.

“The top three genes we identified as being associated with asthma were previously linked with both obesity and inflammation,” said Marquitta White, the study’s lead researcher. “We already knew there was a strong clinical link between obesity and asthma inflammation, and this result sheds a bit more light on the biology of that relationship in these kids.”

BuzzFeed reports Burchard, director of the UCSF Asthma Collaboratory lab, began recruiting Black children for the project in 2006, tracking their unique symptoms and DNA characteristics. But things did not progress until White, a Black postdoctoral fellow from Washington, joined the lab in 2014. She told BuzzFeed four of her five nephews have asthma.

White led the research team of four female summer students — three undergraduates and one San Francisco-area high school student, Oona Risse-Adams.

“This paper shows that understanding that people are different — not better or worse, equal or unequal, but different at a genetic level — can be important and should be looked at to improve health,” Risse-Adams, named co-lead author on the study, said.

Black Americans are notoriously weary of clinical trials. And with reason: U.S. scientists have historically targeted unsuspecting Black patients for medical research. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study in Alabama and the gynecological surgeries on enslaved women are just two examples of horrific abuses practiced in American medicine.

Still more research is needed on diseases that disproportionately impact African-Americans.

Blacks are more likely to die of cancer than any other racial group in the U.S., yet the National Cancer Institute said African-Americans accounted for just 9 percent of its clinical trial participants in 2013.

The absence of African-American scientists in major research studies may explain why so few Blacks are represented in clinical trials.

ThinkProgress reported on the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s review of National Institutes of Health grant data in 2013. Science Magazine found that Black scientists were much less likely to win research grants from the agency — even when their credentials were the same as white counterparts. Black researchers were 10 percentage points less likely to receive funding.

“We’ve known anecdotally for some time that African-Americans are not as successful at getting [grants],” Wayne Riley, president of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, and chair of the Association of Minority Health Professions Schools told Science at the time. Raynard Kington, former NIH deputy director and one of the study’s authors said, “This shouldn’t be news. What it should be is a wake-up call.”

Burchard, lead scientist for the asthma study, is Puerto Rican. He told BuzzFeed he was turned down by NIH 11 times. Burchard used funding from other research grants and UCSF donors to collect data for the study.

“It’s not for a lack of interest in African-Americans,” he said. “It has been extremely difficult to get this funded.”

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