JABSOM PhD student hopes to open a network of community-based participatory research centers investigating culturally based health interventions

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Pictured: Christian Dye, outside the Biomedical Sciences Building, photo by Deborah Manog Dimaya.

“JABSOM has allowed me to be at the center of research that is not only meaningful, but was instrumental in allowing me to do so in the communities that I feel most passionate about, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders,” Christian Dye.

A graduate student born in Hilo, Hawaii is conducting research in the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) that is likely to have a significant impact on underserved and vulnerable populations. Christian Dye is probing the causes of diabetes and other chronic diseases prevalent in the Native Hawaiian and other communities. “My current research seeks to understand inflammation-associated disorders, like diabetes, from an epigenetics viewpoint – the influence of environmental factors (diet, exercise, smoking, etc.) on how our cells function by influencing how genes are turned on, off, or even changed,” he explained.

Dye focuses on epigenetics to determine the potential mechanisms underlying disease pathogenesis. “We may be able to understand whether certain areas of the genome are epigenetically regulated,” he said, “and if such regulation may be involved in how immune cells function and whether this leads to immune dysfunction, or inflammation.”

Dye obtained a B.S. in Biology from the University of Hawaiʻi–Mānoa (UHM) in 2012 and is now in the UH Department of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering. “My long-term career goal is to successfully acquire my own laboratory to do independent research in health disparities, primarily those among Native Hawaiian populations, which may ultimately be translatable to other at-risk populations.”

Dye’s interest in the cellular and molecular biology of health disparities motivated him to work at the UH medical school. “JABSOM has allowed me to be at the center of research that is not only meaningful, but was instrumental in allowing me to do so in the communities that I feel most passionate about, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders,” he said. “JABSOM also allowed me to enter some of the communities where these health disparities are prevalent and use research to help understand them.”

Expressing his gratitude to JABSOM faculty who have worked with him, Dye said: “These mentors and collaborators have given so much of their time and effort to help me understand each of my projects, granted me multiple opportunities to continue learning and growing in the sciences, and mentored me to be a successful person inside and out of the lab.” He noted that Dr. Michael Corley helped him learn to juggle research and academics and to succeed at both. “I have been incredibly fortunate to have Dr. Lishomwa Ndhlovu as a mentor and collaborator. I also appreciate my own personal mentor, Dr. Alika Maunakea, who gave me the opportunity to work in his laboratory throughout my graduate schooling and allowed me to spearhead multiple projects that would help in my academics and set the stage for the rest of my career in research.”

With epigenetics as the unifying theme of his research, Dye has studied various conditions, from diabetes to neurocognitive disorders, in at-risk populations such as the HIV-infected community and Native Hawaiians in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas. “These projects have generated potential targets that may be useful to understanding immune function and mechanisms that may be important in future studies to understand pathogenesis.”

Exciting results of Dye’s research include the benefits of an intervention in Native Hawaiians with diabetes, which led to drastic changes in epigenetic profiles. The epigenetic alterations were linked to changes in gene expression and immune cell function (reduced inflammation) that were associated with better glycemic control. “These findings have potentially bridged cell function and beneficial health outcomes with epigenetic modifications that may regulate genes enriched in biological functions important to immune cells,” he said.

Dye plans to develop a network of community-based participatory research centers for investigation of cellular, molecular or biological mechanisms that may underlie the benefits of culturally-based practices and interventions. “By bridging indigenous knowledge and practice within a western context of science, technology, and medicine,” he observed, “we may be able to understand the ‘science’ as to why these practices are beneficial to at-risk communities while also elucidating how certain cells, like immune cells, may function, and the potential that their regulation may be involved in beneficial health outcomes which can eventually be used in targeted strategies for understanding disease risk and possible therapeutics.”

Though a native of Hilo, Dye moved to Las Vegas when he was two years old. “At the age of 13, I was fortunate to move back to Hilo, where I attended Kamehameha Schools–Kea’au campus and graduated in 2008.” When contemplating his career path he always gravitated toward the health sector. “Above all I wanted to give back to my Hawaiian community that has raised me to be the person I am today,” he recalled. “I thought going into the sciences would give me the opportunity to help my people in the way I felt I could do the most. It would allow me the opportunity to work in health-related fields. Instead of seeing and helping people on a daily basis, as would a physician, I could use my work to add to the general pool of knowledge and develop my own answers to health disparities, with the hope of it being beneficial on a larger scale.“

Dye can usually be found near the ocean when not in the lab. “Hawaiʻi is the greatest place in the world,” he said, “but second-best would be Klamath, California, where I got to experience some of the best salmon fishing and breathtaking outdoors during my childhood.” His favorite spot is a beach called Puanui ten miles north of Kawaihae on the Big Island. “Here I’ve spent much of my summers, holidays, and some weekends camping by the ocean, fishing, spear diving, snorkeling, scuba diving, and enjoying the wonderful nature of the Big Island.” On Oʻahu he does a lot of surfing. “I’ve also retaken up outrigger canoe paddling and even paddled the Molokai Hoe,” in October.