One of VCU's greatest strengths is its diverse student population. We want Spit for Science: The VCU Student Survey to be a project that all VCU students feel comfortable in participating. To that end, conducting this project with cultural sensitivity is an important priority for the Spit for Science research team.
In designing this project, we carefully considered several issues surrounding racial/ethnic minority involvement in genetic research. The text below addresses questions that we thought might be of concern to members of our university and the broader community. Dr. Danielle Dick, one of the Principal Investigators leading this project, is keenly aware of these issues as she has directed other on-going genetics projects with ethnically and culturally diverse populations. Dr. Aashir Nasim, Special Assistant to the Provost and Director of the Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry, and Innovation, is another member of the research team who brings expertise in these issues as his teaching and scholarship focus on conducting culturally appropriate research with African American populations.
The advisory board for the Spit for Science project has minority representation, and our undergraduate research team consists of students from many different backgrounds, reflecting the diversity of the VCU student population. If you have concerns or questions about minority involvement in research, or suggestions for ways that we could make the project more accessible to all of our diverse students, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and a member of the research team will get in touch with you.
Most of the genetic research going on today is on people of European descent. This is likely for practical and political reasons. Minorities are justified in their skepticism of biomedical research because of unethical medical research practices that occurred in the past and, to some degree, persist today in the form of racial/ethnic health disparities that result from inequities in medical treatment and services. For obvious reasons, this makes it harder to recruit minorities to participate in biomedical research. And, because doing genetic studies with minority populations is considered by some to be a "political hot button," it's simply more convenient to conduct studies in white populations.
Even more, studies that don't explicitly focus on white populations often don't have enough minority participants to incorporate them meaningfully in the research. In our opinion, this often leads to research conclusions that fail to account for the inherent diversity in minority populations. This is of particular concern in genetic research because there are varying levels of genetic diversity in different racial/ethnic groups based on migration patterns over the course of human history. For example, there is far more genetic diversity in people of African descent. This results from the fact that all human populations started in Africa. As different groups moved out to different parts of the world, they took with them the subset of genetic variation that those people who migrated happened to be carrying. What this means is that studying people who were founded from these subsets (e.g., people of European descent) will only cover part of the genetic variation that is present in people of other descent.
As a consequence, we are likely to miss many important genetic factors that may be important in minority groups but not represented among white populations. The failure to responsibly recruit minorities in genetic research will render medical advances taking place in the field of genetics to be most relevant to people to European descent. This, undoubtedly, will perpetuate the inequities that exist in medical treatment. Therefore, despite the historical and political realities, it is critical that we include minorities in genetic research so that the disparities that exist in medicine today are not further exacerbated as we move into the era of personalized medicine and genomics.
Absolutely not! We all carry the same set of genes. But, it does mean that there may be different versions of those genes in different populations. So, unless we include different populations in biomedical research, we won't know what the risk and protective variants are in that population. Many of the findings that come out of white populations are likely to apply to minority populations and vice versa. But, there are also likely to be genetic variants that are important in one population and not the other simply because of differences in the frequency of that particular genetic variant in different populations.
A classic example of this is the ALDH gene. This is a gene involved in the breakdown of alcohol by the body after it is consumed. There is a version of the gene that makes it very difficult for people to breakdown a toxic by-product of alcohol. People who carry this version of the gene experience facial flushing, nausea, and other unpleasant side effects when they drink alcohol. The carriers of this version of the gene are far less likely to develop alcohol dependence, but this version of the gene is only present in Asian populations. It is virtually nonexistent in white populations. Accordingly, the gene is important in influencing who will develop alcohol problems in Asian populations but not in other races. People of other descent still have the gene; there is just no variation in that gene so it doesn't contribute to differences between people in their risk for alcoholism. This is why we have to include different populations if we are to understand the risk and protective factors that are critical for that particular group of people.
In this project, we aim to understand the risk and protective factors (both environmental and genetic) that contribute to variability in behavioral outcomes among our VCU students. We are NOT making comparisons between groups or looking for differences between groups. Some of our analyses will be conducted specific to one group or another (e.g., conducted separately for males and females or separately for African American and European American students). This is because we know that sometimes risk and protective factors are different between different groups, and to ignore the rich diversity across people and assume a "one size fits all" developmental model would be inappropriate and culturally insensitive.
In addition, the outcomes we are interested in (substance use and related behaviors) are incredibly complex and influenced by hundreds or even thousands of genes. This means that any one genetic risk factor might be more prevalent in a particular group, but that information alone is virtually meaningless because any one gene on its own has such a little effect. Further, genes are not destiny! They only influence one's disposition to develop a particular outcome. The environment still plays a critical role. A person may be genetically predisposed to be more likely to have a heart attack, but, with the proper diet and exercise (in other words, a good environment), the person may never actually have a heart attack. This is why it's critical to understand genetic susceptibility; it clearly plays an important role. But, knowing one's genetic predisposition should not be misunderstood as knowing one's destiny. We believe that genetics will play an important role in shaping the future of medicine, and we want to ensure that those advances are shared by ALL individuals. The only way to ensure that is to have representation across many groups in genetic research. We hope that Spit for Science: The VCU Student Survey will be a positive step in that direction.