Professor David Curtis, a geneticist and psychiatrist from University College London, has raised an issue concerning the heavy bias within genetic research towards white Europeans. Prof Curtis claims that the utilisation of white European samples for genetic tests are insignificant when applied to other ethnic minorities because of genetic variation between ethnicities.
Curtis wrote a letter to the Medical Research Council (MRC) and Wellcome Trust last December, in which he detailed his concerns and notified the leaders that the diversification of genetic testing is needed as the UK medical science stands at risk of being accused of being institutionally racist.
Certainly there is a bias towards European samples.
‘It definitely stands to reason that European populations will be first to benefit,’ said Doug Speed, a statistician studying the genetics of disease at Aarhus University in Denmark.
With the expansion of the clinical application of genetics over the next decade, this calls for an urgent and equal representation of ethnic minorities in genetic studies.
Currently, ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the UK Biobank where 94.6 percent of the biobank samples are from white British participants, while the rest of the samples are from minority groups. Clearly, there needs to be an even ethnic distribution to represent everyone.
Prof Curtis reinstates the need for diversification by pointing out the case of polygenic risk scores – an individual’s risk of disease calculated by the contribution of genes. These risk scores can predict the likeliness of gene related conditions such as high blood pressure and schizophrenia.
Using this score, Prof Curtis discovered that the test predicted those with African ancestry to be ten times more at risk of schizophrenia than those with European ancestry, not because people with African ancestry are more prone to schizophrenia, but because the genetic markers used were from studies where participants had European ancestry.
Thus, to secure equality in health, there needs to be more ethnic groups involved in genetic studies in order to confidently offer ethnic minorities the same tests provided to white Europeans. Prof Curtis states, ‘It seems grossly unfair to me that people from ethnic minorities are funding this research through paying their taxes but are then not receiving the full benefits from it.’
Leaders from both the MRC and Wellcome Trust have acknowledged Prof Curtis’ concern and are funding projects such as the East London Genes and Health and the Human Hereditary and Health in Africa Initiative to re-address the balance.
Dr Richardson, the head of molecular and cellular medicine at the MRC said, ‘the MRC will continue to support population research that looks at health and disease in diverse demographic groups, including ethnic, socioeconomic and age.’