A new study would seek to get to the bottom of why Native Hawaiians, Filipinos and Pacific Islanders face high rates of many cancers.

The Legislature is facing a myriad of requests for funding during this year’s session, but researchers at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center hope one in particular rises to the top.

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

Twenty-two legislators signed onto the bill which was introduced primarily by Rep. Cory Chun, a former lobbyist for the American Cancer Society. Chun said the bill would help researchers get started on what’s known as a multiethnic cohort study, and make it easier for them to justify requests for federal funding after the study has launched.

Lani Park, an associate professor specializing in cancer epidemiology at the University of Hawaii; and Alika Maunakea, associate professor at the Institute for Biogenesis Research at the university, 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 one population to be at higher risk of a disease.

University of Hawaii Cancer Center. Kakaako. 8 sept 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Researchers at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center hope to get to the bottom of disparities facing Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and Filipinos. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015)

“We can’t improve our strategies for prevention if we don’t fully understand what is causing those unequal burdens,” she said. There could also be financial cost-savings to the community as well, she said, when diseases are better prevented.

She thinks it’s a good time to address health inequities given how they’ve 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 wouldn’t be the first multiethnic cohort study in Hawaii. Loic Le Marchand, a professor in cancer epidemiology at UH, is the current principal investigator on a study that started in the 1990s in partnership with the University of Southern California. The study included 215,000 participants across five racial groups: whites, Japanese Americans, Native Hawaiians, African Americans and Latinos.

The data has helped fuel over 1,000 peer-reviewed studies, Le Marchand said. For example, the study enabled researchers to conclude higher rates of colorectal cancer among Japanese Americans in Hawaii may be caused by exposure to chemical carcinogens via smoking and red meat consumption.

Le Marchard thinks the time is right to launch a new study that also includes communities like Pacific Islanders, whose health disparities are well-known but experience major data gaps.

All three communities in the new study were hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic in Hawaii — Pacific Islanders and Filipinos in Hawaii got sick at high rates particularly during the first wave of the pandemic, while Covid-19 infection rates among Native Hawaiians rose during the Delta surge.

“Ethnic disparities have come to the forefront due to the pandemic and in a sense that really pushed us to try to move this project forward,” Le Marchard said.

Le Marchard said that in an ideal world, the Legislature would appropriate $500,000 per year over two years to fund the study, enabling researchers to recruit at least 40,000 participants.

“Those studies are expensive and will take time but I think they are very useful because those populations will not be studied if we are not doing it in Hawaii,” he said.

The issue is personal for Maunakea, who grew up on Hawaiian homesteads in Nanakuli. The researcher said he and Park plan to bring on board community partners and hope to inspire more young people to enter the health care field.

He added studies like this 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 measure has been referred to the House Committee on Health and Homelessness and House Finance Committee. Rep. Della Au Belatti, who leads the health committee, hasn’t yet scheduled a hearing for the bill but is one of its many cosponsors.

The funding will ultimately be largely up to Rep. Kyle Yamashita and Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who lead the money committees in the House and Senate. Neither were available for comment Monday afternoon. Maunakea said getting to the bottom of high cancer rates is particularly urgent given that some cancer disparities are increasing in Hawaii, such as stomach cancer rates among Native Hawaiians.

“It’s not just going to go away by itself,” he said of disparities. “We really need to understand the data and how we can use that information to enrich our lives and reduce the risks for these conditions to happen in the first place.”

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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