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April 2018

Integrating the Genetics of Race and Ethnicity Into Cancer Research: Trailing Jane and John Q. Public

Author Affiliations
  • 1Breast Oncology Program, Henry Ford International Center for the Study of Breast Cancer Subtypes, Henry Ford Health System, Detroit, Michigan
  • 2Department of Translational Genomics, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, Los Angeles
JAMA Surg. 2018;153(4):299-300. doi:10.1001/jamasurg.2017.5080

Variations in cancer burden associated with racial/ethnic identity are well documented in the United States; of these, increased cancer mortality rates among African American individuals are arguably the most alarming. Are these disparities in cancer outcomes caused by socioeconomic inequities or variation in tumor biology and/or genetics? Health care access barriers created by socioeconomic disadvantages are more prevalent in the African American community compared with white American groups, and this undoubtedly contributes to disparities. But other factors might be involved as well. It is debatable whether the existing racial/ethnic categories have any relevant biologic significance or if they simply represent sociopolitical constructs. Genomics, proteomics, and other “-omic” technologies continue to revolutionize the treatment of cancer; these tools can also be used to characterize genetic components of race/ethnicity. This leads to a second question: why does cancer research continue to rely on self-reported racial/ethnic identity when we have the capability to clarify associations between race and disease risk through less ambiguous measures of heritage?