Project delves into obesity and lifestyle diseases

A project designed to understand and better address the rise of non communicable diseases in Samoa was launched at the Ministry of Health yesterday.

The Obesity, Lifestyle and Genetic Adaptation (O.L.A.G.A.) study project comes under the leadership of Director General of Health and C.E.O. of the Ministry of Health, Leausa Dr. Take Naseri, Chief Statistician of the Samoa Bureau of Statistics, Muagututi’a Sefuiva Reupena, Professor Nicola Hawley of Yale University and Professor Stephen McGarvey from Brown University School of Public Health.

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi fully supports the project’s goals.

 “This is an important step in the right direction, if this nation is to make any progress in reducing non-communicable diseases stemming from obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and cancer,” he said.

The Prime Minister stressed that N.C.D.’s were not only a threat and cost to individual health but to Samoa’s long-term economic and social development.

The OL.A.G.A. research lab houses state-of-the-art equipment and resources which were donated by Professor McGarvey and his colleagues, and made possible with grants from the United States National Institutes of Health. 

Upon the conclusion of the research project – all of the equipment in the laboratory will be donated to the Ministry of Health, representing a donation of more than US$175,000 (T$444,728).

Perhaps the most interesting piece of equipment on display in the research lab is the Dual Energy Xray Absorptiometry (D.X.A)  which is the current gold standard of body composition and bone health assessment. 

Samoa is the first of the Pacific Island nations to benefit from this technology and the team from Yale and Brown University will be offering opportunities to their local clinician colleagues to become experts in the use of this equipment.

The three projects housed under the O.L.A.G.A. study group focuses on child health and development (Ola Tuputupua’e) and health of pregnant women (Foafoaga o le Ola). 

However it is the Good Health (Sofua Manuia) study that is creating a slight buzz with its investigation into a specific gene variant found only in Polynesians that could prove to be ground breaking once the study has been completed.

“Fifteen years ago we started to ask questions about the partial role that genetic and inherited factors have and these studies led us in 2010 to study 3500 adults across 33 villages in Samoa,” said Professor McGarvey. 

“That provided data on the national trends for N.C.D.s, which allowed us to investigate in very fine detail some of the genetic influences and to our surprise and to our great interest we discovered a new genetic variant that is found exclusively in Polynesian peoples. 

“Interestingly, it contributes to the rise in weight gain in those individuals but contributes to lower levels of blood sugar so as a researcher of course we are interested in how this gene works.”

Overall the research should provide greater biological understanding of how this gene affects N.C.D.s and with the state-of-the-art equipment, Professor McGarvey and his team will also study mothers, infants and children to understand when is the right age to do interventions in order to prevent the onset of these types of N.C.D.s.

Speaking to the Samoa Observer, Professor McGarvey elaborated on how significant it was for them to discover the new genetic variant and what could be the potential outcomes of the study.

“As scientists we were like what the heck is going on, usually obesity and type diabetes are tightly linked,” he said. 

“We saw (through repeated studies) that 45 percent of Samoans have this particular gene variant which is very high. 

If we could at the end of the research understand the biology of that gene more because we don’t have a clue (we may have some guesses) but later on when we understand it more - there is potential for drug discovery and so the Prime Minister and I have had several conversations about protecting the intellectual property that might come from that. 

“We are in discussions about making a Memorandum of Understanding about the intellectual property residing in Samoa and any financial benefits that might come from that but from a research point of view, there’s a potential for drug discovery.”

Professor McGarvey said he was grateful for the continued support of the M.O.H., Samoa Bureau of Statistics, N.H.S. and the government leaders who supported their research with the perspective that scientific research will lead to improved knowledge of the health of Samoan people.

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