While health care is being debated by a black president and a mostly white congress, it’s interesting to note something that may not be “PC,” but is true nevertheless: blacks and whites get different diseases, even here in the US where the lineage of African-Americans is so racially mixed.
For years, scientists have tried to determine the basis for discrepancies between race and the development of diseases such as type II diabetes and heart disease. Could factors such as differences in lifestyle or access to health care play a role, or is there something else going on?
Now researchers have made a recent discovery that suggests inherited genetic variations exist between whites and blacks living in the US, leading to less efficient metabolism of glucose and predisposition to diabetes in the blacks. Dr. Cam Patterson says, “We found gene expression profiles that suggest that carbohydrate metabolism should be different in the African-Americans in our population compared to Caucasians.”
What is the meaning of this difference between how whites and blacks metabolize sugars (carbohydrates)? Why do these differences exist? The answer may lie far back in history, in a time when these races were not living in the same country or environment.
The researchers suggest that the apparent inhibition of glucose metabolism in blacks may be a reflection of an environment where food was scarce or that the diet was significantly different to that consumed by whites. “In essence, although African populations moved geographically as they came to the United States, their genes retained a pattern more suited to their ancestor’s home, becoming maladaptive as African populations adopted a Western diet,” Patterson says.
Although the finding may be controversial, it’s not the first time that researchers have found that geographic ancestry predicts genetic variations. Patterson says, “For example, G6PD deficiency, an inherited disorder that affects red blood cells and is most common in African-American males, is believed to have evolved in some populations as a protection against malaria.
“This study raises the question, are there other examples of groups of gene changes that might be protective under some environments or nutritional scenarios, and maladaptive under others? The practical value of this is providing a tool for looking for these sorts of things. If we really are going to be serious about personalized medicine, we can’t ignore the value of this type of knowledge.”
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