Blazing through Barriers to Care

The US is plagued by racial and ethnic disparities in some of the deadliest diseases. Ending that discrepancy starts with including more minorities in our research.

Esteban Burchard, MD, MPH, is outraged in the best possible way: His research has revealed that fewer than 5 percent of respiratory studies funded by the National Institutes of Health and fewer than 2 percent of clinical trials funded by the National Cancer Institute have included minorities among their test subjects – far too few to yield meaningful results. 

How can that be, when ethnic minorities make up 47 percent of the US population and are among the most frequently and hardest hit by respiratory disease and cancer? Among African Americans, for example, asthma deaths are three times more common than among people of European descent. But with white males dominating the populations studied in large-scale biomedical research, drugs developed to fight these diseases are less likely to be effective in people of color. 

So Burchard – a physician-scientist, genetic epidemiologist, and UCSF resident alumnus – started gathering data on his own. He has spent more than two decades compiling genetic, socioeconomic, and environmental data on more than 10,000 African American and Latino children to undertake the nation’s largest and most comprehensive gene-environment study of asthma in minority children. Based on these samples, he is researching how those most affected by asthma respond to existing medications and pinpointing more precise methods for diagnosis and treatment. 

“There are scientific advantages to be gained by studying diverse populations,” Burchard says. “Some drugs will work really well for African Americans, and some drugs will work really well for everybody. But we won’t know that if we don’t include minorities in our research.” 

UCSF is dedicated to the promise of precision medicine – using genetic knowledge to develop better, more precise drugs targeted to an individual’s specific disease profile. Beyond that, UCSF is focused on making sure that precision medicine does not leave behind the diverse and vulnerable populations that often are underserved by organized medicine.  

Esteban Burchard is the Harry Wm. and Diana V. Hind Distinguished Professor in Pharmaceutical Sciences II. 

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