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Genes are the portions of chromosomes that determine many of the traits in every living thing. In humans, genes influence race, hair and eye color, gender, height, weight, aspects of behavior, and even the likelihood of developing certain diseases. Although some traits are a combination of genetics and environment, researchers are still discovering new ways in which people are affected by their genes.

Pharmacogenetics is the study of how people respond to drug therapy. Although this science is still new, there have been many useful discoveries. It has long been known that genes influence the risk of developing certain diseases, or that genes could determine traits such as hair and eye color. Genes can also alter the risk of developing different diseases. It has long been known that people of African descent were more likely to have sickle cell anemia than people of other races. People of Armenian, Arab, and Turkish heritage are more prone to familiar Mediterranean fever than people of other nationalities. More recently, discoveries have shown that genes can determine other aspects of each individual, down to the level of the enzymes produced in the liver. Since these enzymes determine how quickly a drug is removed from the body, they can make major differences in the way people respond to drugs. Some of the most basic work concerns the way race and gender influence drug reactions'and race and gender are genetically determined.

Women often respond differently than men to drugs at the same dose levels. For example, women are more likely to have a good response to the antidepressant drugs that act as serotonin specific reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs, the group that includes Prozac and Paxil) than they are to the older group of tricyclic antidepressants (the group that includes Elavil and Tofranil). Women have a greater response to some narcotic pain reliving drugs than do men, but get less relief from some non-narcotic pain medications. Women may show a greater response to some steroid hormones than men do, but have a lower level of response to some anti-anxiety medications than men.

Race may also affect the way people respond to some medications. In this case, race implies specific genetic factors that are generally, but not always, found among members of specific ethnic groups. For example, the angiotensin II inhibitor enalopril (Vasotec), which is used to lower blood pressure, works better in Caucasians than in Blacks. Carvedilol (Coreg), a beta-adrenergic blocking agent that is also used to lower blood pressure, is more effective than other drugs in the same class when used to treat Black patients. Black patients with heart failure appear to respond better to a combination of hydralazine and isosorbide than do Caucasian patients using the same medication.

More specific research has identified individual genes than may influence drugs response, without relying on group information such as gender and race. Specific genes have been identified that may determine how patients will respond to specific drugs. For example, some genes may determine whether people will get pain relief from codeine, or how well they will respond to drugs used to treat cancer.

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