Senior Scientists Warn of Inequalities in Medical Benefits of Genetics Research

by Vins
Published: Updated:

One of the UK’s leading scientists has called for organizations that fund medical research to acknowledge that genetic tests developed using samples from white Europeans do not necessarily provide accurate results when applied to other ethnic groups, the Guardian reported in October 2018.

In a letter to the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Wellcome Trust, David Curtis, a geneticist and psychiatrist at University College London, wrote that the situation is so problematic that “UK medical science stands at risk of being accused of being institutionally racist.” In response, John Savill, the MRC’s chief wrote, “I do not think it is helpful to cast concerns over experimental design as ‘equalities issues.’”

Other senior scientists have backed Curtis’s claims. Eske Willerslev, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge and director of the GeoGenetics center at the University of Copenhagen, criticized funding agencies of “appearing reluctant to invest in sequencing samples from people of non-European descent,” the Guardian reported. Doug Speed at Aarhus University in Denmark was quoted as saying, “Certainly there is a bias towards European samples. It definitely stands to reason that European populations will be first to benefit.”

Curtis identified polygenic risk scores as the most striking instance of ethnic inequalities in the medical benefits of genetic research. Polygenic risk scores predict the likelihood of conditions like schizophrenia or high blood pressure, where vast numbers of genes contribute to risk.

In an international inventory of more than 3,000 research papers describing polygenic risk scores, 78 percent of the sequences used in research came from individuals of European ancestry. Just nine percent came from individuals of east Asian descent, while non-European and non-Asian groups accounted for less than four percent of the sequences.

In a study published in October 2018 by Psychiatric Genetics, Curtis reported that polygenic risk scores for schizophrenia “derived from European subjects cannot be applied to non-Europeans.” This finding, Curtis wrote, limits the usefulness of such tests in clinical settings and raises “issues of inequity in health provision.”

The Guardian’s report noted that choices to study ethnically homogenous groups can be “scientifically valid,” because they “make it easier to spot genes of interest.” But, the article continued, “Curtis and others believe this approach has been pursued with little or no regard to equalities issues.”

Source: Hannah Devlin, “Genetics Research ‘Biased Towards Studying White Europeans,’” The Guardian, October 8, 2018,

Student Researcher: James Hemphill III (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Andre Bailey (Sonoma State University)