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Experts tackle issues raised by race-based drugs

Scientists and scholars specializing in medicine, public health, social sciences, ethics and law will convene at MIT on Friday and Saturday, April 7 and 8, for a groundbreaking conference on the complex implications of such drugs as BiDil, a heart medication approved by the FDA in 2005 for treating patients who identify themselves as black.

The crossdisciplinary discussion, titled "Race, Pharmaceuticals and Medical Technology," was organized by the Center for the Study of Diversity in Science, Technology and Medicine (CSD) at MIT. The event, which will take place at the MIT Faculty Club, is free and open to the public.

Dr. David S. Jones, assistant professor of the history and culture of science and technology, is director of CSD, which is part of the Program in Science, Technology and Society (STS) at MIT.

As organizer of "Race, Pharmaceuticals and Medical Technology," Jones described its overarching goal as "trying to figure out how to respond to the implications of BiDil."

For example, Jones asked, "Is it the old racism, repackaged as genetic science? Is this appropriate clinical practice, based on recognition of real biological differences between different races?

"Or, is racial medicine just a passing phase on the road to a future of fully individualized medicines?"

The FDA's approval of BiDil, which is marketed by Lexington, Mass.-based NitroMed, met with immediate controversy. Critics feared the government was endorsing the idea that blacks differ biologically from other groups and implicitly promoting racial stereotyping.

Presenters will focus on the case of BiDil in particular and on the promises and pitfalls of racial therapeutics in medicine generally. The potential and implications of pharmacogenetics -- drugs and medical treatment customized by genetics for individuals -- will also be explored.

Sessions include "Pragmatism and Its Discontents," "Minority Populations on Trial," "Histories of Racial Therapeutics" and "The Future of Racial Genetics."

Individual speakers and topics range widely across disciplines. Susan Reverby of Wellesley will speak on "BiDil as Tuskegee's Child: What Does It Mean?"

Dr. Keith Ferdinand, a New Orleans-based cardiologist whose practice was swept away by Hurricane Katrina, now practices in Atlanta. He will speak on "BiDil and Race."

Other talks include "Ashkenazi Jews: Overburdened and Overexposed?" "Imperialism, Race and Therapeutics," and "Mongrel Nation: Race, Genetics and the Law."

Panel discussions will include "Genotyping the Future: Scientists' Expectations About Race/Ethnicity and Genetics in the 21st Century" and " 'Frozen Moments' in the HapMap: Ethnographic Speculations on Race and Biomedicine."

Troy Duster, past president of the American Sociological Association and author of "Backdoor to Eugenics," will deliver the keynote address on Friday. His topic is "The Molecular Reinscription of Race."

Evelynn Hammonds, professor of history of science and of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University, will deliver the keynote address on Saturday.

For more information and to register, visit

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 5, 2006 (download PDF).

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