Discoveries Magazine


The Diversity Question

Can precision medicine help solve the problem of inadequate diversity in medical research?

Illustration: Davide Bonazzi

The Promise

By conquering mountains of medical data — particularly regarding genetic differences — scientists can reach new heights in understanding every individual’s health. That is the big, basic idea behind precision medicine.

The Challenge

Differences in health sometimes are encoded in DNA — and variations in the human genome can cluster by ethnicity or geographical origin. Sickle cell disease is more likely to affect African-Americans, for example, while a subtype of breast cancer is more common in those of Ashkenazi Jewish descent than in the rest of the population.

Yet the scientific community rarely has made diversity a priority for medical research. Racial and ethnic minorities make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, but clinical trials have historically enrolled Caucasian men more than any other group. Since 1993, less than 2 percent of studies funded by the National Cancer Institute included sufficient minorities, according to National Institutes of Health (NIH) criteria.

The NIH and others are starting to address the problem, but, in the meantime, much of the clinical research that informs treatments does not necessarily apply to female or minority patients.

The Answer

Trans-ethnic studies encompassing the full sweep of the human population simply equal good medicine — and this is truer than ever in the age of precision medicine. One of precision medicine’s greatest tools is the powerful data analysis that captures and sifts through millions of health details, seeking connections. In this way, the practice of precision medicine may contain its own solution: Technology has made it easier than ever to tap into the complexity of all humankind.

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