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JABSOM researchers awarded $22.5 million NIH grant to study an array of health threats to Native Hawaiian lives

Date: September 21st, 2022 in Collaboration, Community Outreach, COVID-19, JABSOM News, MINORITY, Native Hawaiian, Native Hawaiian Health, Research, UH Manoa    Print or PDF

JABSOM received a $22.5 million dollar grant, spanning five years, from the NIH.

Hawaii has the highest life expectancy at birth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, that success is not reflected in the Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders (NHOPI) population. State data show NHOPI have 7 to 10 years less in life expectancy than other Hawaii residents, and researchers from the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) and other UH health sciences are investigating the sources of the disparities and ways to close the life expectancy gap.

The National Institutes of Health awarded Ola HAWAII researchers a five year, $22,557,840 million U54 grant to foster research into health disparities and to conduct three large studies to explore genetic, environmental, and socio-economic related disparities in health and health care access for specific communities in Hawaii.

Dr. Jerris Hedges (JABSOM dean) and Dr. Noreen Mokuau (Thompson School of Social Work dean emeritus) serve as Multiple Principal Investigators for Ola HAWAII. Hedges notes that  “This grant helps unite UH and community members seeking to improve health in Hawaii through sound science.” Mokuau notes that “funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the premiere form of health research funding because everything you do for NIH connects back to the larger, national agenda on public health and healthcare.”

Mokuau explains how Ola HAWAII thoughtfully selected the projects that would have the broadest impact on Hawaii’s population. “It’s about seeding ideas that best benefit the people of Hawaii, in areas such as cardiovascular health, diabetes, and COVID-19.”

“The John A. Burns School of Medicine is the essential leader in the state of Hawaii for health, in general, and in reducing health care disparities in particular. Ola HAWAII’s work focuses on the kinds of research that help us find new interventions and treatments to support underserved populations who sometimes have less direct access to health care.”

Ola HAWAII (Ola means health or to heal in Hawaiian, and HAWAIʻI stands for Health And Wellness Achieved by Impacting Inequalities) is a center based at JABSOM. The medical school collaborates with community and UH Manoa partners. The grant supports the development of teams of researchers in health disparities to solve future health challenges. The grant supplies research tools and trains young investigators in team science.

Funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), the Ola HAWAII investigators seek to close the health and longevity gap between NHOPI and the rest of Hawaii’s population through biomedical, behavioral, and clinical research. Mokuau underscores the importance of today’s funding and the freedom it gives Ola HAWAII researchers.

“As we conduct research that will lead to interventions which help people, at some point, we begin to extend and enhance lives. That’s what this is about,” Mokuau says.

Ola HAWAII researchers are committed to projects that focus on health issues impacting people of Hawai'i.

Ola HAWAII researchers are committed to projects that focus on health issues impacting people of Hawai’i. Projects include diabetes, food insecurity, and long COVID. Photo by Matthew Campbell

Here’s a closer look at three specific projects:

Exercise, Exosomes, & Metabolic Health in Type-2 Diabetes

Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders (NHOPI) are disproportionately affected by type 2 diabetes (T2DM). We’ve known for years that exercise can successfully reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. However, even when the NHOPI population exercises, the benefits are not as significant when compared to Whites. A new study led by Ola HAWAII researchers will investigate the role that nano-sized sacs called exosomes play in lowering the risk of diabetes while identifying exercise and lifestyle guidelines that could be tailored for the NHOPI population.

Noemi Polgar, PhD, Nicholas James, PhD, and Scott Ferguson are the principal investigators.

MALAMA: Backyard Aquaponics to Promote Healthy Eating & Reduce Cardiometabolic Risk

Native Hawaiians (NH) have the highest mortality rates of cardiometabolic diseases, like heart disease and diabetes. NH also face disparities in access to healthy food options and are more likely to face food insecurity, which can further exacerbate genetic health issues. Ola HAWAII researchers are testing the efficacy of MALAMA. It’s a culturally-grounded, family-centered backyard aquaponics program that’s planted in multiple NH communities. The goal is to reduce food insecurity, while increasing the consumption of healthy foods, which in turn, could lower the risk of cardiometabolic diseases in the NH population.

Jane Chung-Do, DrPH, & Heidi Ilima Ho-Lastimosa, MSW are the principal investigators.

Factors Responsible for the Development of Post-Acute Sequelae of Acute COVID Infection in Hawaii

Nearly a third of people who recover from acute COVID-19 will have what’s known as long-Covid, scientifically  known as Post Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC). Many of those with long-Covid also have pulmonary problems like persistent cough and labored breathing. The pandemic was especially hard on Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders (NHOPI) and Filipinos. Ola HAWAII researchers are investigating the change in the body’s function that causes disease and how social and psychological situations could contribute to long-term outcomes.

Gehan Devendra, MD, & Juwon Park, PhD are the principal investigators.

Matthew Campbell, Director of Communications

JABSOM received a $22.5 million dollar grant, spanning five years, from the NIH.

JABSOM received a $22.5 million dollar grant, spanning five years, from the NIH. Photo by Matthew Campbell

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