Should medicine be colour-coded?
By James Kingsland A 10-year-old girl wakes up in the night, wheezing and struggling for breath. She uses her asthma inhaler, but as usual it doesn’t help. In the morning, her mother takes her to the doctor’s surgery, seeking an explanation. The doctor asks a few questions but seems flummoxed. Then she has an idea. She looks at them closely, and after a moment’s hesitation asks: “You wouldn’t be Puerto Rican, by any chance?” The question seems ridiculous, even racist. What have the girl’s ethnic origins got to do with anything? But people from Puerto Rico do suffer unusually badly from asthma, and new studies are suggesting that their genetic make-up may be at least partly responsible. At the moment only a few clued-up doctors are likely to be aware of the asthma research, but in the future, doctors may base a growing number of their treatment decisions on people’s ethnic origins. Next Thursday, a panel of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is scheduled to decide whether or not to approve BiDil, the first ever race-specific medicine. BiDil is a treatment for heart failure that the manufacturer wants to market for black people only. Its argument is that BiDil works much better in African Americans than in white people because of a key biological difference between the groups. On the face of it,