2 minute read

Rick Kittles

Directed Prostate Cancer Study

As he was completing his doctoral degree at George Washington University in 1998, Kittles was hired as an assistant professor of microbiology at Washington's Howard University and was named director of the African American Hereditary Prostate Cancer (AAHPC) Study Network at the university's National Human Genome Center. This project involved setting up national network of mostly African-American medical scientists who would enroll 100 families with at least four members who were afflicted with prostate cancer; blood samples were subjected to genetic research, with the intent of finding a genetic marker that might explain the high incidence of the disease among African-American men.

Kittles faced a public-relations problem of long standing in his new post, for the AAHPC Study Network was a government-funded project. "There is very strong resistance in the African-American community to participate in government-sponsored research," Kittles pointed out to the Chicago Sun-Times. "The first thing they say is 'Tuskegee,'" referring to the infamous 40-year United States Public Health Service study in which hundreds of black men were unknowingly denied proper treatment for syphilis infections. Kittles and his associates hoped that a project carried out mostly by African American researchers might break down these walls of mistrust.

Another research enterprise in which Kittles became involved at the beginning of his career was the African Burial Ground Project in New York City, where Howard researchers led by anthropologist Michael Blakey exhumed the remains of 408 African Americans from an eighteenth-century graveyard. Some of the research followed traditional anthropological models: caskets were examined in search of links to traditional African practices, and the scientists learned what they could from dry bones about how these enslaved African Americans had spent their working life. But Kittles was able to merge anthropology and biology, gathering DNA samples from the remains and comparing them against a growing database of DNA obtained from modern Africans in order to find out where the eighteenth-century African Americans had originally come from.

It was while doing this work that Kittles and his associates had a brainstorm. If they could trace the origins of buried African Americans, they could do the same thing with living individuals. As a pilot project, they began to gather genetic material from Boston-area school children. The idea gained support from a group of Boston ministers who helped organize the program. Boston was selected because its African-American population was relatively self-contained; many black Boston families could trace their roots to the American Revolution or even earlier.

At a Glance...

Born 1976(?) in Sylvania, GA; raised in Central Islip, NY. Education: Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY, BS, biology, 1989; George Washington University, PhD, biological sciences, 1998.

Career: Various New York and Washington, DC, area high schools, teacher, early 1990s; Howard University, Washington, DC, assistant professor and director of National Human Genome Center African American Hereditary Prostate Cancer Study Network, 1998-2004; African Burial Ground Project, New York City, researcher; African Ancestry, Inc., founding partner (with Gina Paige) and scientific director, 2002–; Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, associate professor, 2004–.

Addresses: Office—Department of Molecular Virology, Immunology & Medical Genetics, 690C Tzagournis Medical Research Facility, 420 W. 12th Ave., Columbus, OH 43210. Web—www.africanancestry.com.

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Dan Jacobson Biography - Dan Jacobson comments: to Barbara Knutson (1959–2005) Biography - PersonalRick Kittles Biography - Concocted African Ancestry, Directed Prostate Cancer Study, Callers Jammed Howard Switchboard, Attracted Celebrity Customers