OHSU establishes Alaska Native Health and Wellness Research Center

Center will complement efforts to expand native voice in health, science education and research

Through nearly 20 years of relationship building with the Yup’ik Alaska Native people, former University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers Bert Boyer, Ph.D., and Scarlett Hopkins, RN, M.A., learned that the Yup’ik traditional subsistence diet and busy lifestyle is associated with protection from type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Boyer and Hopkins will now continue decoding the molecular mechanisms of protection from type 2 diabetes as leaders of the new Alaska Native Health and Wellness Research Center at OHSU, in partnership with the Bob and Charlee Moore Institute of Nutrition & Wellness in the OHSU School of Medicine.

Kent Thornburg, Ph.D., professor of medicine, OHSU School of Medicine, and director of the Moore Institute, recruited the pair in part because their work complements OHSU efforts to increase native voice in medical education, research and health promotion in the School of Medicine. Dr. Thornburg’s own research, looking at how nutrition before birth, during pregnancy and lactation and in the first years of life impacts lifelong chronic disease risk, overlaps with work the pair have been doing in Alaska.

“We welcome Bert Boyer and Scarlett Hopkins and are grateful for their willingness to build on their work here at OHSU in partnership with Kent Thornburg and the Moore Institute,” said School of Medicine Dean Sharon Anderson. “We are also excited about how their work contributes to our emerging capacity at OHSU to better care for and learn from native communities.”

The interdisciplinary OHSU center will engage faculty and students in culturally respectful research. It will integrate traditional and scientific knowledge to benefit the health and wellbeing of present and future generations of Yup’ik Alaska Native people and to understand developmental origins of health and disease.

Mutual benefit is a core value of their research

Dr. Boyer and Hopkins, appointed professor and instructor, respectively, of obstetrics and gynecology in the OHSU School of Medicine, will continue spending 1-2 months in remote Yup’ik communities each year. They formed a Tribal Oversight Committee of tribal leaders and research collaborators. This committee visited OHSU twice in the last year to meet with leadership and ensure all biological samples and health information that they will be working with are being securely managed.

Dr. Boyer and Hopkins’ work adheres to a Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) framework. They work in partnership with local communities to develop research questions, spend time getting to know community members and share what they learn in ways communities can benefit from the results.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in southwestern Alaska covers an area roughly the size of Nebraska. About 23,000 people live in 58 remote communities. None of the communities are on a road system, and most are only accessible by small plane, snowmobile or boat. Boyer and Hopkins work with 11 communities in this area, each with their own tribal government.

Traditional diet

Historically, Yup’ik people relied exclusively on locally harvested foods including fish, marine mammals, berries, game, and wild greens. The traditional Yup’ik diet is associated with very high intakes of polyunsaturated fatty acids, vitamins A and D, and dietary protein, and low intakes of carbohydrates, sugars and dietary fiber.

However, the traditional diet is transitioning toward a more market-based diet rich in carbohydrates and processed foods. Traditional foods now account for only 7 percent to 43 percent of daily caloric intake, mostly among older age groups who consume more of these foods.

While obesity rates among the Yup’ik population are similar to other areas of the U.S., type 2 diabetes rates are less than half. Boyer and Hopkins are interested in understanding the protective factors associated with a Yup’ik diet and how this may prevent chronic diseases in future generations.

Yup’ik eager to learn insights

The Yup’ik language has no words for genetics, heredity or inheritance, so part of the work includes involving communities in defining culturally-appropriate communication strategies and determining how research outcomes should be shared. Dr. Boyer and Hopkins have learned that the Yup’ik communities want to engage with them and hear about the health protecting measures already happening in their communities.

“The Yup’ik are strong and remarkable people. We have been humbled by the opportunity to know and learn from them,” Dr. Boyer said. “We are grateful to Kent and the Moore Institute and delighted by the chance to expand our work at OHSU and become a part of shaping how OHSU can better serve native people and partner with them to advance health for all.”