Professor of Community Health and Anthropology Stephen McGarvey has researched the intersection of genetics and lifestyle in Samoa and American Samoa for more than 30 years. Now, armed with a $5.2 million National Institutes of Health grant that will enable him to map 1 million sites on the genome, McGarvey is set to head back to the islands to conduct a more extensive study of Samoans' health problems, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
Conditions such as obesity and diabetes "have a genetic level of influence," McGarvey said. But these genetic influences "interact in ways we don't exactly understand" with lifestyle choices such as diet, exercise, alcohol consumption and smoking, he added.
Samoa's "genetic homogeneity" and socioeconomic diversity — some parts of the archipelago are rural while others have become more modernized — are ideal for these two areas of research, McGarvey said.
Because the rates of obesity and related problems are high in the Samoan population, McGarvey said he originally expected to find a specific genetic variation in his research subjects. But the variations he found exist among other world populations as well.
"The genotyping adds to what we already know," McGarvey said of genetic susceptibility to weight-related conditions. "Even if you do live a moderate lifestyle, there may be some genetic variations that increase your risk and you need to be careful."
The Samoan people are becoming "increasingly aware of these health problems," he said, and "people are very enthusiastic to participate" in the studies.
But the immediate future and timeline of the project might be in limbo in the wake of a deadly tsunami that hit the Samoas this week.
"We don't know yet what the impact on the starting of the project will be," McGarvey said, adding that he has been unable to communicate with the Samoan side of his research team to find out whether it is safe. "Life and limb is more important than science at this point."
Though he will work with a team of American researchers, McGarvey said he will need the help of the local team supplied by the Samoan government. As he only knows "the pleasantries" in Samoan, the locals will be essential for conducting interviews.
The five-year study funded by the new grant will go beyond McGarvey's previous work, mainly because it will make use of "rapid advances in genomic technology," McGarvey said. In previous studies, he was only able to genotype 360 loci, or locations on the genome. Now his team hopes to genotype 1 million loci.
McGarvey said his lifestyle surveys will also be more thorough this time around.
For now, McGarvey will wait for the Samoan government's approval to begin his research.
"I am a partner with the government of Samoa, so I will take my direction from them," he said.