Howard University officials yesterday announced plans to create the first large-scale collection of genetic profiles of African Americans, an endeavor they described as a bid for a "place at the table in genetic research" and a pathway to improved medical care for blacks.

The DNA data would be collected in the form of laboratory samples from thousands of patients at Howard University Hospital, which serves a predominantly black and medically underserved population in the District. The confidential information on 25,000 Howard patients would be stored in computers by a Chicago-based private company that pledges to keep it safe from hackers and inquisitive health and life insurance companies, officials said. Later, the recruitment drive would tap Howard alumni, they said.

Promoters of the project contend it could supply important knowledge about health patterns in a racial minority group that has mostly shied away from participating in medical research for a half-century even as its members have endured starkly higher rates of chronic diseases and preventable deaths than whites. The incidence of diabetes, high blood pressure and prostate cancer, among other diseases, is far higher among African Americans than whites. It is sharply higher than the rate of those diseases among Africans, too, a point that Howard researchers want to study.

"Africa is the trunk of the human genetic tree," said Charles N. Rotimi, a genetic epidemiologist at Howard's National Humane Genome Center. "This can give us a more complete picture of human evolution and history."

However, other genetics experts question the premise that the program can help as much as Howard officials say.

Troy Duster, a New York University sociologist who has focused on issues of race and genetics, said he is not convinced that blacks have been overlooked in the genetics revolution and expressed skepticism that a database such as the one Howard wants to create would reveal much of medical value to blacks.

The first disease to have its genetic underpinnings identified was sickle cell disease in 1949, he noted -- a disease that primarily strikes blacks and that remains beyond the curative powers of genetic medicine. Because race is a sociological construct rather than a biological or genetic category, Duster said, it will be difficult to make connections between diseases, treatments and race.

Duster said such studies have the potential to exacerbate social misunderstandings by strengthening the misguided notion that race is defined by one's genes, when there is more genetic variation within races than between them.

"The real danger here is of reifying race at the genetic level," Duster said. "A good study of race, genetics and medicine would look at a fact, like blacks have a higher rate of prostate cancer, and not just look for genetic variants to explain that" but instead how the rate may be affected by lifestyle and environmental factors.

"Do they live near toxic waste dumps?" he asked. "Do they have more stress problems and hypertension? Why focus just on DNA? With race we're looking at a complex picture that includes genes, cells, development and all the social and cultural factors that make a group."

Gilbert S. Omenn, a professor of medical genetics and public health at the University of Michigan, agreed that it will be crucial to include lots of non-genetic information in the database, including neighborhood environment, history of smoking, and use of medicines and dietary supplements -- all of which have cultural associations and can affect race-based studies of health.

But if the research were conducted ethically and openly, the Howard effort could help minorities, even though diseases are not segregated cleanly along race lines, he said.

Medical geneticists "are in a Catch-22," Omenn said. "We're accused of neglecting the black population when we do clinical studies, but if we include them it carries all these perceptions of racism, so it's tricky."

He said it would be best if the database were not used to study certain traits or behaviors "like IQ or criminal behavior, which are super-sensitive for obvious reasons and where we know environment plays a big role," Omenn said. "It would be wise to focus instead on medical problems that have been neglected."

Georgia M. Dunston, director of Howard's genome center, said everyone at the university understands the challenge of persuading black patients to entrust them with the collection and storage of genetic data. She said she is constantly asked by African Americans about the revelation in 1972 that black men in Tuskegee, Ala., were not given treatment for syphilis over four decades of research.

She said she would appeal to patients to authorize the use of their genetic information as a way to benefit their race.

"We have to learn from the past," she said. "This knowledge is critical, and there is no substitute for participation."

Rotimi described the data bank as a way to help scientists develop more effective drugs and preventive advice customized for America's black population.

"If you want your clothes to fit you, you'd better go to the tailor to be measured," he said.

The creation of the Howard repository, in partnership with First Genetic Trust Inc., of Chicago, is not unprecedented in the United States; various U.S. hospitals and medical schools have them, but none is devoted to a single population group on this scale.

Iceland has aggregated individualized genetic information on distinct populations, and Japan has plans to do so. In Britain, government and public interest groups are planning UK Biobank for support of medical and drug development. UK Biobank will collect DNA samples, medical records and lifestyle information of 500,000 people between 45 and 69 years old. It will follow the participants' health status for more than 10 years. The Biobank will provide researchers chances to correlate genetic traits with common diseases.