Two University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center researchers were honored for outstanding mesothelioma research from the International Mesothelioma Interest Group (iMig), an independent group of scientists and clinicians working to understand, cure and prevent mesothelioma.

Wagner Medal: Michele Carbone

Michele Carbone

Michele Carbone was honored for “discovering the role and mechanisms of genetics in the pathogenesis of mesothelioma.”

Studying a mesothelioma epidemic in remote villages in Cappadocia, Carbone proposed genetics modulated mineral fiber (asbestos) carcinogenesis. He proved his hypothesis studying U.S. families with multiple cases of mesothelioma. Carbone identified the gene BAP1 that, when mutated, increased susceptibility to asbestos and caused mesothelioma and other environmentally related cancers.

He named this new medical condition The BAP1 Cancer Syndrome and, with Haining Yang, traced its origin to a family leaving in Europe in the 1500s. In a manuscript published in Nature in 2017, Carbone’s team elucidated the mechanism by which BAP1 modulates cellular responses to human carcinogens (asbestos, ionizing radiation, ultraviolet light, etc.).

iMig presents the Wagner Medal every two years to an individual who has made major original contributions to the understanding of mesothelioma, either in basic or applied research.

Research Award: Haining Yang

Haining Yang

Haining Yang was honored for “discovering the mechanisms of asbestos carcinogenesis.”

Yang, whose research focuses on the pathogenesis of mesothelioma, has discovered some key mechanisms of asbestos-induced carcinogenesis. She found that asbestos induces cell necrosis, causing the release of High Mobility Group Box 1 protein (HMGB1). It functions as the “master switch” that, when turned on, kickstarts a series of inflammatory responses that over time leads to mesothelioma development.

Moreover, Yang discovered mesothelioma cells that grow out of an HMGB1-rich environment are “addicted” to HMGB1 and require it for tumor growth and progression.

Recently she discovered that high levels of HMGB1 can be used as a biomarker for asbestos exposure and mesothelioma. A clinical trial is ongoing to validate these findings. The iMig Research Award is awarded every two years to recognize the potential significance and impact on the field of novel mesothelioma research (basic, translational or clinical).

Carbone and Yang share a lab at the UH Cancer Center and together lead an international team of fellows and students. They are currently developing clinical trials to translate their discoveries into novel preventive and therapeutic approaches for cancer patients.

—By Nana Ohkawa