Doctors Who Make a Difference in Hawai‘i

Meet five Hawai‘i physicians that are doing important work in our local communities.


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RX: Hope

A Hawai‘i doctor is poised for success with two key clinical trials, one based on a familiar Island fruit.

By Don Wallace 

Dr. Charles Rosser’s clincical trials offer hope in prostate and bladder treatment.

A FOLK MEDICINE FAMILIAR to Native Hawaiians, noni could make a difference in the lives of the 6,900 new patients diagnosed with prostate cancer each year in Hawai‘i, if Dr. Charles Rosser succeeds in his mission. 


A new approach is badly needed for prostate cancer, the most common cancer in men, with about 220,000 new cases nationally each year; in Hawai‘i it’s the second-most-common male cancer, after skin cancers. Treatment of prostate cancer in its early stages has been virtually paralyzed since 2012, when the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force found that taking a PSA blood test created more harm than good, due to a 13 percent false-positive rate.


“Treatment is very controversial,” says Rosser, 46, the father of twin 2-year-olds and a principal investigator of clinical trials at the University of Hawai‘i Cancer Center. “Yet a lot of newly diagnosed patients don’t want to sit around and do nothing,” while waiting to see if the cancer will advance to Stage 2. “We went to studies we’d done here at the UH medical school and were able to demonstrate” the promise of noni as an anti-inflammatory drug that will slow down and even halt the progress of cancerous cells in the prostate. One obstacle that could’ve derailed a clinical trial, a lack of patients willing to try noni, was neatly solved by basing the test at the UH Cancer Center. 


“This one is going to be all local,” says Rosser. “On the Mainland, the doctors would be less likely to embrace it. We’re going to do a major push here in Hawai‘i to let people know this study is available in Hawai‘i.”


ROSSER’S PROCESS of “searching journals, reading the latest things around, going to international meetings, keeping the feelers out to the pharmaceutical companies,” is probably not what comes to mind when we think of medical research. But he’s on quite a hot streak. Even as he was homing in on noni, he struck clinical-trial gold with the discovery of a possible breakthrough test for bladder cancer—like prostate cancer, frustratingly hard to treat in early stages, but much deadlier. The five-year survival rate for men newly diagnosed with prostate cancer is 99 percent; for bladder cancer, “every year, 200 patients here in Hawai‘i will be diagnosed with it,” says Rosser. “About one-sixth (33) will die.” 


Rosser says, “We knew there hadn’t been any bladder cancer drugs approved by the FDA in 15 years,” but a study of Interleukin-15 caught his eye. When they got in touch with the company, “They weren’t interested in cancer of the bladder, but in kidney and melanoma.” Once Rosser and his lab completed experiments combining L-15 with a conventional cancer drug on mice, however, the manufacturer “did an about-face—now much of what they’re doing is for bladder cancer.” A Phase I clinical trial started last summer was completed this spring with clearly promising results: “People realize this is such a groundbreaking drug. There was only one cancer center, us, when we started a year ago. Now we are leading the nation as it goes into Phase II. There are going to be up to 10 hospitals across the nation following our plan.” Rosser’s lab will coordinate.


While drug approvals are still a few years away, awaiting a third clinical trial and an FDA evaluation, it looks like Hawai‘i may lead the way to a double breakthrough in cancer treatment.    


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Honolulu Magazine November 2018
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