Are Race-Specific Drugs Unethical?

With BiDil on the market, experts weigh the moral implications

the ethical issues intertwined with the scientific issues. There is no justification, on the basis of science, to assume that a drug will work for all people in a particular ethnic or sociodemographic group, and race makes the assumption that everyone in a group is the same. Based on what we know about human genome variation, a drug will not work for everyone in a particular group and there are people in other groups for whom it might work.”

There are also economic issues, claims Royal, which are not being widely discussed, namely that NitroMed Inc., BiDil’s manufacturer, has a monopoly on this patent, which was due to expire in 2007 but has now been extended to 2020 as a result of the drugmaker re-marketing BiDil for use among African Americans.

Another issue is cost. BiDil sells for $1.80 per pill, far more than generic drugs at 30 cents a pill. But William “BJ” Jones, NitroMed’s vice president of marketing, says no one will pay retail price. “BiDil will be free for people whose income is under the poverty level.”

While Jones and others marketing new drug treatments see a big future in personalized medicines, those in the medical community who remain skeptical of ethnic drugs say long-term research will be the true determinant. “I don’t think it’s going to evolve at a pace that might increase the number of available drugs for select populations because of the negative feedback that has arisen, particularly among constituents who currently control the purse strings for research.” says Price. “I think it will continue to be a topic of discussion for the next five to 10 years, but will move slowly in terms of turning out research-based clinical trials that is race-specific.”

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