Researchers hope Hawaii lawmakers will fund cancer research this year

A new study would attempt to get to the bottom of why native Hawaiians, Filipinos and Pacific Islanders face high rates of cancer.

The Legislature faces a plethora of funding requests during this year’s session, but researchers at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center are hoping one in particular will make it to the top.

House Bill 1301 would fund a new study to analyze cancer differences among native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and Filipinos in Hawaii.

Twenty-two lawmakers signed the law, which was primarily introduced by Rep. Cory Chun, a former lobbyist for the American Cancer Society. Chun said the bill would help researchers begin what is called a multiethnic cohort study and make it easier for them to justify requests for federal funding once the study has started.

Lani Park, associate professor specializing in cancer epidemiology at the University of Hawaii; and Alika Maunakea, associate professor in the university’s Institute for Biogenesis Research, would serve as principal investigators on the study.

Park said the data gleaned from the study could help improve health equity in Hawaii, adding that it’s an injustice for a population to be at higher risk of disease.

University of Hawaii Cancer Center.  cocoa.  September 8, 2015. Photo Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Researchers at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center hope to get to the bottom of the differences that native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and Filipinos face. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015)

“We cannot improve our prevention strategies unless we fully understand what is causing these unequal burdens,” she said. There could also be financial cost savings to the community, she said, if disease is better prevented.

She believes it is a good time to address health inequalities as they have been highlighted during the pandemic and how President Joe Biden’s administration recently committed to improving equity for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders nationally .

This would not be the first multiethnic cohort study in Hawaii. Loic Le Marchand, a professor of cancer epidemiology at UH, is the current principal investigator of a study that began in the 1990s in collaboration with the University of Southern California. The study included 215,000 participants from five racial groups: White, Japanese American, Native Hawaiian, African American, and Latino.

The data helped advance over 1,000 peer-reviewed studies, Le Marchand said. For example, the study allowed researchers to conclude that higher rates of colon cancer among Japanese Americans in Hawaii could be caused by exposure to chemical carcinogens from smoking and eating red meat.

Le Marchard believes the time is right to launch a new study that also includes communities, such as Pacific Islanders, whose health disparities are known but have large data gaps.

All three communities in the new study have been hit hard by Hawaii’s coronavirus pandemic — Pacific Islanders and Hawaiian Filipinos became particularly ill during the first wave of the pandemic, while Covid-19 infection rates among native Hawaiians rose during the Delta Rise.

“Ethnic inequalities have come to the fore because of the pandemic and in some ways it’s really pushed us to try to move this project forward,” Le Marchard said.

Le Marchard said that in an ideal world, lawmakers would allocate $500,000 a year over two years to fund the study, which would allow the researchers to recruit at least 40,000 participants.

“These studies are expensive and will take time, but I think they’re very useful because if we don’t do it in Hawaii, these populations won’t be studied,” he said.

The problem is personal for Maunakea, who grew up on Hawaiian homesteads in Nanakuli. The researcher said he and Park plan to onboard partners from the community and hope to inspire more young people to enter the healthcare field.

He added that studies like these can help shape public policy, public health practices, and other types of interventions that could help not only his own community but Hawaii’s communities in general.

The action was referred to the House Committee on Health and Homelessness and the House Finance Committee. Rep. Della Au Belatti, who heads the health committee, has not yet scheduled a hearing for the bill but is one of its many co-sponsors.

Funding will ultimately be largely handled by Rep. Kyle Yamashita and Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who chair the House and Senate Treasury Committees. Both could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon. Maunakea said getting to the bottom of high cancer rates is especially urgent as some cancer inequalities in Hawaii are increasing, such as stomach cancer rates among native Hawaiians.

“It’s not just going to go away on its own,” he said of the differences. “We really need to understand the data and how to use that information to enrich our lives and reduce the risk of these diseases occurring in the first place.”

Civil Beat Health Insurance is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, the Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.