Science writer Jeff Wheelwright contributes articles, mainly on genetics, to the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times Magazine and Discover. His hot pursuit for a genetics-related book idea landed him in the San Luis Valley of Colorado and New Mexico, where an aggressive form of breast cancer prominent in Jewish women has turned up in Hispanic Catholics. I recently caught up with Wheelwright to talk about his experience reporting and writing "The Secret of San Luis Valley" a feature in Smithsonian's October issue and his first take on the topic.
What do you find fascinating about the topic of race and genetics?
Race is obviously a very important theme for United States history, and racism has always looked to biology to validate itself. Genetics came along and knocked the underpinnings out from under the biological constructions of race. It forced everyone who thinks about it to be clearer about what they mean when they talk about race. It is not just a social label that captures some very superficial, phenotypical characteristics like skin color but much more a cultural history and real biological component. There are ways to group people using strictly biological, genetic criteria, but they don't square very well with conventional and historical notions of race. So the whole concept of race, the fact that it was starting to fall apart in the latter half of the 20th century, that really did interest me.
What are the challenges to writing about genetics, and to writing this particular story?
African Americans and race, Native Americans and race—it's not a simple thing to understand, but it's a well-beaten path in American history. The question of the place of Jews in America is a little dicier, and anti-Semitism is an important theme. The fact that Jews are a socially privileged group, and well-educated group in American society means that they've produced a great preponderance of the genetic science, so one of the interesting things was seeing how many Jewish geneticists are working on this field and what they're thinking about their work. You can look at this particular phenomenon, this breast cancer mutation, through a whole series of lenses. You have to be aware as a writer that you know those filters are there, the filter of the researcher being Jewish, whether it's a genetic scientist or a historian, and then, the subject's. You have these rural New Mexican and Hispanic—although they call themselves Spanish American—people, who discover sometimes to their chagrin that they are related to Jews. Some of them grab on to it. Others run the other way, deny the whole thing and get offended to be told that they are related to Jews.
You say that one in 100 Jews carry the 185delAG mutation. That seems shocking to me. Is there anything comparable in other ethnic groups?
There's the 185delAG, but there are two other BRCA mutations, which are not only characteristic but diagnostic, if you will, of Jews or Jewish ancestry. If you take the three of them together, the carrier rate for a BRCA mutation is about 2.5%. You can make the argument that it is the most widespread, potentially lethal trait of any population group anywhere in the world. The carrier rate for Jewish women for heritable breast cancer and ovarian cancer is 10 times higher than any other population group. I would submit—the study hasn't been done—that if you went and surveyed, in San Luis Valley and northern New Mexico, just women at random, the way surveys have been done on Jewish women in, let's say, New York or San Francisco, you'd find a carrier rate that was equivalent. Because they are not as well served medically, not as educated and proactive in terms of medical care as Jewish women are, you potentially have an epidemiological issue that nobody knows about. It just came up rather fortunately or unfortunately, however you want to say it, in this case in San Luis Valley.