Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Correspondence

Race and ancestry in biomedical research: exploring the challenges

Timothy Caulfield1*, Stephanie M Fullerton2, Sarah E Ali-Khan3, Laura Arbour4, Esteban G Burchard5, Richard S Cooper6, Billie-Jo Hardy3, Simrat Harry1, Robyn Hyde-Lay7, Jonathan Kahn8, Rick Kittles9, Barbara A Koenig10, Sandra SJ Lee11, Michael Malinowski12, Vardit Ravitsky13, Pamela Sankar13, Stephen W Scherer14, Béatrice Séguin153, Darren Shickle16, Guilherme Suarez-Kurtz17 and Abdallah S Daar1819203

Author Affiliations

1 Faculty of Law and School of Public Health Research, Health Law Institute, University of Alberta, 89 Ave and 111 St., T6G 2H5, Canada.

2 Department of Medical History and Ethics and Department of Genome Sciences, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.

3 Program on Life Sciences Ethics and Policy, McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health, University Health Network, University of Toronto, MaRS Centre, 101 College St, Toronto, Ontario, M5G 1L7, Canada.

4 Faculty of Medicine, Island Medical Program, University of British Columbia, 3800 Finnerty Rd, Victoria, British Columbia, V8P 5C2, Canada.

5 Department of Biopharmaceutical Sciences and Department of Medicine, Divisions of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Pharmacogenetics, Pulmonary & Critical Care Medicine, and Clinical Pharmacology, University of California, San Francisco, CA 94143-2911, USA.

6 Department of Epidemiology & Preventive Medicine, Stritch School of Medicine, Loyola University, 2160 South First Avenue, Maywood, IL 60153, USA.

7 Genome Alberta, 3553-31 St NW, Calgary, Alberta, T2L 2K7, Canada.

8 Hamline University School of Law, 1536 Hewitt Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55104, USA.

9 Department of Medicine, Section of Genetic Medicine, Department of Human Genetics, University of Chicago, 5841 South Maryland Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637, USA.

10 Program in Professionalism & Bioethics, Mayo College of Medicine, 200 First St SW, Rochester, MN 55905, USA.

11 Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, Stanford University Medical School, 701 Welch Rd, Palo Alto, CA 94304, USA.

12 Paul M Hebert Law Center, Louisiana State University, 1 East Campus Drive, Baton Rouge, LA 70803, USA.

13 Department of Medical Ethics and Center for Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania, 3401 Market St, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.

14 The Centre for Applied Genomics, The Hospital for Sick Children, and Department of Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto, 555 University Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, M5G 1X8, Canada.

15 Leslie Dan School of Pharmacy, University of Toronto, 144 College St, Toronto, Ontario, M5S 3M2, Canada.

16 Leeds Institute of Health Sciences, University of Leeds, 101 Clarendon Rd, Leeds, LS2 9LJ, UK.

17 Pharmacology Division, Instituto Nacional de Câncer, Rua André Cavalcanti 37, Rio de Janeiro 20231-050, Brazil.

18 Department of Public Health Sciences and of Surgery, University of Toronto, 155 College St, Toronto, Ontario, M5T 3M7, Canada.

19 McLaughlin Centre for Molecular Medicine, University of Toronto, MaRS Centre, 101 College St, Toronto, Ontario, M5G 1L7, Canada.

20 Department of Medicine, University of Toronto and University Health Network, 190 Elizabeth St, Toronto, Ontario, M5G 2C4, Canada.

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Genome Med 2009, 1:8  doi:10.1186/gm8

Published: 21 January 2009


The use of race in biomedical research has, for decades, been a source of social controversy. However, recent events, such as the adoption of racially targeted pharmaceuticals, have raised the profile of the race issue. In addition, we are entering an era in which genomic research is increasingly focused on the nature and extent of human genetic variation, often examined by population, which leads to heightened potential for misunderstandings or misuse of terms concerning genetic variation and race. Here, we draw together the perspectives of participants in a recent interdisciplinary workshop on ancestry and health in medicine in order to explore the use of race in research issue from the vantage point of a variety of disciplines. We review the nature of the race controversy in the context of biomedical research and highlight several challenges to policy action, including restrictions resulting from commercial or regulatory considerations, the difficulty in presenting precise terminology in the media, and drifting or ambiguous definitions of key terms.