The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) awarded three grants totaling more than $3 million to researchers at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center last month to advance their studies of mesothelioma.
The awards were part of the Peer Reviewed Cancer Research Program funded by the DOD. The University of Hawaii has been a national leader in the study of mesothelioma, which strikes a disproportionate number of military veterans.
“We’re grateful that all the work we’ve put into research in the past is being recognized and appreciated,” Dr. Michele Carbone, director of thoracic oncology at the cancer center, told Asbestos.com. “Our track record is good.”
Carbone has been a world leader in mesothelioma research for decades. He is the former director of the University of Hawaii Cancer Center. His research was the first to uncover details of the BAP1 gene mutation in 2011 and its direct tie to mesothelioma. It still is the only gene mutation proven to have a direct link to this disease.
He and Associate Professor Haining Yang received the Pentagon’s two-year, $600,000 Idea Award with Special Focus grant that will concentrate on more genetic research. They hope to identify another specific gene mutation that increases the risk of developing mesothelioma after asbestos exposure.
Finding that mutated gene could help identify individuals who would benefit from early cancer screening.
“When we first started looking for the genetic link, people thought I was out of this world. They thought I was chasing a ghost. It was a hypothesis, and we eventually proved it,” Carbone said. “We identified the first one, and they want to see if we can find a second one.”
Carbone and Yang also received a three-year, $1.9 million DOD Translational Team Science Award to study HMGB1, a ubiquitous protein that may serve as a biomarker in predicting the risk for developing mesothelioma.
Both studies are expected to impact military personnel who have had extended exposure to asbestos — the cause of mesothelioma. Depending upon the success of the studies, they could lead to earlier detection when the disease responds better to treatment.
Veterans account for an estimated 30 percent of mesothelioma legal cases, although they account for only 8 percent of the total U.S. population. The disproportionate amount stems from the military’s past and heavy reliance on asbestos products. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral used to strengthen and fireproof many products. Unfortunately, it also is toxic.
Pietro Bertino, assistant researcher at the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii, received the third DOD grant, a three-year, $550,000 Career Development Award. He will study an antigen vaccine possibly used for therapy and prevention of mesothelioma.
“The remarkable success of our cancer center and the John A. Burns School of Medicine researchers in obtaining these awards illustrates the role of the University of Hawaii as leaders in mesothelioma research,” said university President David Lassner. “This demonstrates our ability to reduce the burden of cancer locally, nationally and internationally.”
Since 2011, the Peer Reviewed Cancer Research Program has funded only six previous mesothelioma projects, totaling an estimated $3 million. Yang is among those recipients.
Carbone has led the charge for many years, traveling the world in his search to uncover the intricacies of the disease. Under his leadership, the University of Hawaii has consistently received more federal funding for mesothelioma research than any other institution.
“Our goal is to save as many lives as possible from mesothelioma,” he said.