Culture Meets Science in Discovery
Aug 19, 2014 9:00 AM
Ever heard the nickname “Happy Valley?” Not the one 45 miles South of Salt Lake City. I’m talking about the one nearly 14,000 miles from here in Dharmshala, India. Home to many Tibetan refugees, this similarly nicknamed village is not the only connection we have to the other side of this planet.
Sometimes the story behind groundbreaking research can be as captivating as the discovery itself. So it is with work by Josef Prchal, M.D., professor of internal medicine, revealing that a tiny genetic change allows Tibetans to thrive in the thin air of the Tibetan Plateau, with an average elevation of 14,800 feet. The research was published online in the journal Nature Genetics.
Before Prchal could even start the research, his team made several trips to Asia to gain permissions, including a letter of support from the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, to enroll Tibetans in the study. But try as he might, Prchal could not connect with Tibetans until he enlisted the help of native Tibetan Tsewang Tashi, M.D., an author and clinical fellow at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, who gained the Tibetans’ support by simply helping them to realize that their ability to adapt to life at high altitudes is unique.
“They usually responded by a little initial surprise quickly followed by agreement,” he said. “It was as if I made them realize something new, which only then became obvious.”
It is this previously untold story that has led to an understanding of how humans have adapted to life in a specialized environment that has now become part of a cultural identity. Arguably more exciting, their hard work lays the groundwork for exploring the implications of the Tibetan adaptation for developing new treatments for many common diseases in which oxygen plays a “happy” and central role.
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