Group shot of diabetes research team
From left: Takashi Matsui, Rachel Boulay, Ralph Shohet, Marjorie Mau, Mariana Gerschenson, Olivier LeSaux, Viola Pomozi, Michael Corley, Noemi Polgar, Alexander Stokes

The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa has been awarded a major federal grant to establish a Center for Biomedical Research Excellence on Diabetes. The $11.2 federal grant, which may be renewed for two additional five-year cycles after its initial five-year period, will intensify Hawaiʻi-based research into a disease that currently affects 155,000 adults and children—1 in 9 individuals in Hawaiʻi.

Additionally, Hawaiʻi has 460,000 with pre-diabetes, a condition that increases the risk of developing diabetes. Diabetes is marked by high blood sugar, which can lead to eye complications, kidney disease, nerve damage, high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease.

UH has organized a team of scientists and physicians as part of the new Center of Biomedical Research Excellence in Diabetes at the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM); this center will span departmental and campus borders. The director is Mariana Gerschenson, who is a professor of cell and molecular biology (CMB) and JABSOM director of research and graduate education. She is the principal investigator of the National Institutes of Health sponsored grant. The deputy director is Marjorie Mau, an endocrinologist and professor in the Department of Native Hawaiian Health, and Oliver Le Saux, director of the center’s resources core and associate professor of CMB.

Diabetes and ethnic minorities

The team’s research will include the study of pre-diabetes and diabetes through clinical studies and pre-clinical research. Hawaiʻi’s multi-ethnic population will be a focus of this grant.

“Diabetes is a deadly, rapidly expanding threat in America, and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders population is up to two times more likely than other ethnic groups in the islands,” said Jerris Hedges, JABSOM dean. “We are extremely grateful to Hawaiʻi’s U.S. Congressional Delegation and to University of Hawaiʻi leaders who championed this project out of great concern over the physical toll of diabetes.”

Diabetes attacks Americans of racial and ethnic minorities with a particular vengeance. JABSOM research has shown that 22.4 percent of Native Hawaiians have diabetes, with an additional 15 percent of them diagnosed with impaired glucose tolerance, pre-diabetes. The occurrence of diabetes is also higher among people of Pacific Island and certain Asian ancestries. The cause of those inexplicable disparities will be part of the research focus. The goal is to further understand pre-diabetes and diabetes to develop preventions and improve treatments.

Gerschenson, a second-generation diabetes researcher, is an internationally known scientist who studies metabolic diseases (diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and high cholesterol) and mitochondria (batteries of mammalian cells that make energy). She is the first minority woman (Hispanic) to lead a Center of Biomedical Research Excellence at UH. Mau, who is of Native Hawaiian ancestry, has devoted her career treating patients with diabetes and metabolic disorder, and leading research into diseases which disproportionately strike Hawaiʻi’s people. Two other senior investigator mentors (Le Saux and Takashi Matsui) similarly were former trainees on similar center grants.

JABSOM is a national leader in elevating women to leadership positions in Medicine. Early career investigators supported by this grant will benefit from the leadership provided by these successful minority women and colleagues who themselves have been trained under former Center of Research Excellence grants,” said Hedges.

For a video on the center and investigators, visit the JABSOM website.

—By Tina Shelton