On July 15, a University of Houston-Victoria student and a faculty member boarded a plane for a two-week trip to Lhasa Prefecture, in Tibet, China. But learning a language, satisfying the curiosity for an unfamiliar culture or experiencing the exquisite cuisine on the other side of the globe isn’t the goal of this trip.
Jeff Cokenour, a UHV biology student—as part of his bachelor’s thesis—teamed up with Dr. Richard Gunasekera, UHV associate professor of biology and lab director, and Dr. Zugang Ziang, director of the Centers for Disease Control in China. They journeyed to Tibet in hopes of discovering a cause or treatment for Kashin-Beck disease.
According to Gunasekera, this study is an arrangement among UHV, the Health Department of China and Innovative Humanitarian Solutions—a volunteer organization. He also said this trip is the first of its kind for UHV.
“In a way, it’s a medical mission,” said Gunasekera.
Known to exist mostly in rural Tibet and possibly North Korea, Kashin-Beck disease is a severe form of arthritis, causing joint deformation and limited joint mobility. This painful disease often begins during childhood and affects 10% of the people in this area of Tibet.
Cokenour said part of the plan is to conduct a clinical trial that has been approved by the U.S. government’s National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. The clinical trial will test nutrient-based treatments, and this study intends to collect patient samples from children affected by Kashin-Beck disease for analysis at UHV.
Gunasekera, who was invited to participate on this trip as an expert, said the study will include collecting DNA samples and conducting tests to see if the Tibetan high altitude plays a role in absorption problems with treatment of Kashin-Beck disease. For this purpose, they will collaborate with another UHV biology professor, Dr. Siva Somasundaram.
Gunasekera and Cokenour agreed that the prospect of helping those suffering from this debilitating disease is worth the discomforts or risks they may encounter, including the possibility of falling victim to altitude sickness from hiking 15,000-foot mountains. But this humanitarian experiment is not the first for either of them.
“I’ve done these kinds of missions in many places, and so has Dr. Gunasekera,” said Cokenour. “And we both share a like-mindedness when it comes to undertaking projects in unfamiliar places around the world.”
UHV President Dr. Tim Hudson added, “Mr. Cokenour and Dr. Gunasekera’s willingness to face a harsh, unforgiving environment for this undertaking is truly remarkable. And it is also the collaborative effort of organizations such as Innovative Humanitarian Solutions, the FDA and the Health Department of China that makes this important mission possible.”
Cokenour explained how this project evolved.
“I’ve done volunteer work with International Humanitarian Solutions for the past five years,” said Cokenour. “We’re basically a team of doctors, scientists and students. Our mission is to find very difficult problems that exist in different parts of the world—and then we try to solve them.
“I was fortunate to be a student at UHV in Dr. Gunasekera’s class. I happened to mention to him what I was doing, and he asked me if he could look at some data. He gave me some great direction and ideas how UHV could help,” Cokenour added.
Cokenour and Gunasekera are scheduled to return on July 28. Gunasekera said that the study might take until Dec. 2008 to complete and may require more trips to Tibet.