University of Hawaii Cancer Warriors

Four ways the new UH Cancer Center is going to make a difference.

Photo: UH Cancer Center

The war against cancer has a new headquarters: In February, the UH Cancer Center opened the doors of its new 150,000-square-foot, $102 million facility in Kakaako. The center has been 20 years in the making, and, now that it’s open, UH is pitching it as the ideal home for world-class cancer researchers from
around the globe.

“If you want the top people here, you need to be able to offer the same facilities as everywhere else,” says director Michele Carbone. Until now, researchers had been renting rooms in the John A. Burns School of Medicine, UH Mānoa and other buildings in Kaka‘ako. “There was no way you could recruit or keep anybody there,” says Carbone. The new building’s efficient layout and state-of-the-art technology make it a much more attractive option. “The center, with its open space, offers perfect areas for interaction, where scientists can sit together to discuss and come up with new ideas,” says Carbone.

More than 100 ongoing research projects are moving into the new center. Here are a few of the most promising:

1 Tracing Cancer to Metabolism

One of the first researchers attracted by UH’s new facility is Wei Jia, a new recruit from the University of North Carolina who is investigating the role of metabolism in the onset of cancer. Jia had been flying from North Carolina to Shanghai three to four times a year for research, so when Carbone offered him a position in Hawaii, he was happy to set up shop. Thanks to Jia, the center has a state-of-the-art mass spectrometry instrument, which he’ll be using to analyze and identify defective metabolites in the blood samples of cancer patients.

2 Nailing Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is an agressive form of cancer that begins in the lining of the chest and abdomen. “It’s the most malignant tumor that we know of,” says Carbone. In 2011, UH Cancer Center researchers discovered a genetic link in the BAP1 gene that increases risk. “Before, people thought mesothelioma was caused by chance,” says Carbone. “Now that we’ve found a genetic susceptibility, we are following high-risk individuals with biomarkers to see whether can identify mesothelioma earlier.” Clinical trials to validate these biomarkers began last month.

3. Breast Cancer’s Ethnic Link

Approximately 860 Hawaii women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Dr. Clayton Chong, an oncologist and associate professor in the center’s Cancer Prevention and Control Program, discovered that women of Hawaiian or Philippine descent receive this diagnosis more than other women, and is trying to uncover the exact cause of that correlation. “The center should open more opportunities and will add important research of multiethnic cancers that target Hawaii’s population,” says Chong.

4 Cutting out the Smoke

Sometimes cancer research involves studying not only the treatment of the disease, but its prevention. Thomas Wills, for example, is a Native Hawaiian doctor studying the influence of ethnic and cultural factors on smoking habits. He’s currently evaluating two focus groups of middle-school students in New York and Hawaii, and says that tailoring intervention programs to smokers’ ethnic backgrounds can make them much more effective.