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home : health : health Sunday, September 24, 2017

6/15/2016 4:24:00 PM Email this articlePrint this article 
Hmong Scientist Aims To Overcome American Diseases

By Sara Marie Moore

Pajau Vangay is researching gut microbiomes to create a healthier future for immigrants.
Have you ever wondered why your family has become sick more often since moving to the U.S.? Scientist Pajau Vangay is looking for the answer - through poop.

Pajau is collecting poop samples from Hmong and Karen females - and those who give samples would be paid.

Pajau is a graduate research assistant and a doctoral student of biomedical informatics and computational biology at the University of Minnesota. She and her colleagues are collecting the samples to find out how immigrant families can stay healthy in a new environment. They are looking for samples from other volunteers as well. The samples only need to be the size of a couple grains of rice and participants are provided with a kit to participate in the program. They will be recruiting for about 8 months.

Pajau and her colleagues want to analyze the samples to find out why immigrants face more illness in the U.S. than they did in their previous countries. They think it may have something to do with gut microbiomes - a community of tiny organisms, which live in human intestines and can be analyzed in the poop.

"Bacteria, viruses, parasite, fungi: They all live there in their community and work together for us," said Pajau. "They break down foods. They turn that into energy for us that our body can absorb. They have a lot of different functions. They communicate with our immune system when we are developing as infants."

Microbiomes get in the body first through the birth canal and then through the environment.

"From there on you are ingesting things from the environment. Food encourages certain types of bugs to grow. Microbial life, bugs that grow in our guts, grow there because they grow best in that environment."

Although the gut microbiome is passed from mother to child, it also changes over time. When you are exposed to a new environment, new microbiomes can be introduced and ones you used to have could fade away.

Pajau wants to know if changes to the gut microbiome through moving to a new country can affect your health.

"The microbiome is something that develops with us over time," she said. "With exposure from the environment it gets shaped. It is sort of a new discovery that they play such a large role in our health. This area of research is rather new. Certain microbes and bacteria are associated with diabetes and obesity. People are finding that some microbes are actually contributing to this."

Pajau wants to know if that is a cause or an effect. With the poop samples she collects she hopes to find out.

"We are hypothesizing that your microbiome is shaped by the environment you live in: food, medicine and environment in general," she said. When someone moves here from Asia, they may be affected by the environment around them and take in organisms which cause diabetes and other diseases, even if they eat a traditional Asian diet.

"There are no easy answers," said Pajau. "You can still be eating a traditional diet and be getting sicker. Maybe it doesn't matter how you are behaving, but maybe your microbiome has shifted to get western diseases just by living here."

Pajau has been researching the Hmong community in St. Paul and discovered that diabetes cases are very high, even among those in their 40s and 50s who still prefer a more traditional diet. Hmong people never encountered diabetes in Asia in the past. Pajau thinks it may be caused by a change to the gut microbiome.

"We are thinking this is definitely a factor," said Pajau. "What we are thinking is that there is a ton of environmental factors that affect your microbiome." Pajau thinks an imbalance in the microbiome just from moving across the world could cause certain diseases.

"We definitely think they are losing a lot of their bugs they grow up with," she said. "And acquiring new bugs they have never been exposed to. At the end of the day we think it is causing an imbalance."

In fact, Pajau and her colleagues will also be analyzing students who go abroad in another gut microbiome project. They aim to look at the impact on the microbiome from traveling to different countries. Pajau said studies show America has a less diverse microbiome and that may be what causes American travelers to get sick.

"We sort of live in a very sanitized environment," she said. "Our microbiomes are less diverse than in the developing world. So they are not as capable of handling what gets thrown at them."

And the loss of those diverse microbiomes when people from around the world move to the U.S. can cause other diseases, apparently. That is what Pajau and her colleagues aim to find out and confirm.

Pajau and her colleagues will be analyzing samples from the Hmong and Karen communities in order to have a comparison of two groups from the same area in Southeast Asia, but who have different genetics and lifestyles.

"I want to get the community excited and talking about this kind of research and take control of things they can do for their health," she said.

The purpose of the project is to come up with recommendations for new arrivals on how to take care of their health in order to avoid disease.

"This is really for the community," she said. "I just really want something good to come out of it. I want people to volunteer because I hope they are interested in improving the health of their future generations."

Pajau was born in France and came to the U.S. when she was one year old. She grew up in Colorado and came to Minnesota to get her doctorate degree. Her undergraduate degree was in computer science and her master's degree was in food microbiology. She is now combining those two fields into a doctorate degree in computational biology, a field that merges computer science and biology.

More information on the project can be found at www.knightslab.org/imp.




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