August 15, 2011

I attended the second annual “Tarrytown Meeting” outside of New York City in July, hosted by the Center for Genetics and Society and attended by 120 scholars and advocates working to ensure that human biotechnologies and related emerging technologies support rather than undermine social justice, equality, human rights, ecological integrity and the common good. This was a phenomenal conference due to the interactions I had with the participants and the knowledge I gained from the sessions. Among the issues raised that relate to us as practicing physicians is the drive of pharmaceutical companies to promote race-based medicine for presumed genetic differences in disease patterns. An example includes the promotion of anti-hypertensive medications to African Americans, although there is no genetic basis for this targeted marketing, nor is there evidence for increased efficacy.  (An important point made at the meeting was that while the notion of genetic difference by race is unfounded, there are biological differences and hence disparities that do result from social stressors due to racism’s effects on people of color in our society.) Now that pharmaceutical companies have reached their patent limits on a number of medications, they are expanding to countries around the world and using “geneticization” of race as a basis for marketing drugs toward specific populations. A second issue raised of interest to our chapter of PSR was the emerging technology called “synthetic biology” and plans for building a new lab in Berkeley. Many of the concerns PSR has had on “biodefense” work on biological weapons is parallel to synthetic biology work, in that it may not have adequate environmental health protections. Materials from the 2011 Tarrytown Meeting have not yet been posted, but you can view a video from the 2010 Meeting here.