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University of Hawaiʻi establishes Genome Research Center to understand health disparities

Posted: 16th October 2023 09:50

Researchers from the University of HawaiÊ»i at Mānoa are establishing a genome research center that will focus on HawaiÊ»i’s diverse populations with the goal of better understanding the causes of certain diseases, like specific cancer and heart disorders that disproportionately impact different racial and ethnic groups, including Native Hawaiians and Asian Americans.

A $10.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will help establish the University of HawaiÊ»i Pacific Center for Genome Research. It is part of a nationwide effort to advance diversity in genomics research through innovative, state-of-the-art studies to ultimately improve diagnosis and treatment for minority ethnic groups that have long experienced health disparities.“There is a strong need for having such a genome research center in HawaiÊ»i,” said University of HawaiÊ»i Cancer Center associate professor Lang Wu, the Pacific Center for Genome Research founding director. “Native Hawaiians and Asian Americans experience disparities across many human diseases compared with other populations. It is known that genomics can contribute to the burden of many of these diseases, so the PCGR will greatly benefit these understudied populations.”

The multi-unit University of HawaiÊ»i team is being led by Wu and University of HawaiÊ»i at Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine professor Youping Deng, the Pacific Center for Genome Research founding co-director.

The center is one of two full-scale genome research centers at minority-serving institutions funded by the National Institutes of Health to serve underrepresented populations.“Through the generous support of our national and community partners, the PCGR will enable UH researchers to conduct advanced genomic research projects aimed at establishing health equity among the state’s diverse population,” said Vassilis L. Syrmos, University of HawaiÊ»i vice president for research and innovation. “Our new center will not only substantially increase genomic research capacity in the state, but will provide cutting-edge resources, education and training to establish a new genomic workforce in HawaiÊ»i.”  

The program has plans for two primary research projects. The first, led by Wu, aims to better understand what causes selected diseases in racially and ethnically diverse populations, including Native Hawaiians, Asians and other populations, using genetic and non-genetic data. The second study, led by Deng, looks to characterize genomic risk factors of lung cancer in Native Hawaiians.

The program’s Community Engagement Core, led by Kevin Cassel, associate professor at the University of HawaiÊ»i Cancer Center, and Alika Maunakea, professor at John A. Burns School of Medicine, will convene a community advisory board consisting of physicians, content experts and community stakeholders to provide input and oversight for the two research projects. They will develop resources to support genetic education and training for students, medical providers and the broader community. 

In addition to research, the Pacific Center for Genome Research’s Genomic Workforce Development Core, directed by Jon-Paul Bingham, associate professor at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, and Maarit Tiirikainen, associate professor at the University of HawaiÊ»i Cancer Center, will substantially expand the pool of diverse genomic scientists and trainees at the university by providing educational activities and experiences that are aligned with genome research. Through this initiative, it is anticipated that genomic research capacity will be increased, and diversity of the genomics research workforce will be enhanced at all career levels.

“Our long-term goals of fostering excellence in genome research, career development of genomic workforce, and community engagement will lead to sustainable improvements in health and lasting benefits to the people of HawaiÊ»i and beyond,” said Wu.

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