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zitong gao
Zitong Gao

For many years, lung cancer has been the leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. and in Hawaiʻi. In 2019, the National Cancer Institute reported 139,603 people died of lung cancer, while from 2012 to 2016, approximately 541 people died annually from the disease in the state.

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa molecular bioscience and bioengineering PhD candidate Zitong Gao received an inaugural three-year fellowship to study conduct public impact research on lung cancer at the University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center. The fellowship, sponsored by the Friends of the UH Cancer Center and Clinical Labs of Hawaiʻi, was established in 2021 to support a doctoral student with a focus on cancer research.

Applicants were students from various UH Mānoa programs including molecular biosciences and bioengineering, cell and molecular biology and public health studies. The top candidate was chosen using the following criteria: topic relevance to cancer prevention or control, stated interest in cancer research, research skills and mentor evaluation.

“As a nonprofit whose purpose is to support and promote the UH Cancer Center, the Friends is so very pleased to partially underwrite this program, which will lead to impactful research and also foster researcher talent and growth,” said Monica McLaren, board president of the Friends of UH Cancer Center. “We are excited to support Zitong Gao’s journey and to see how it will lead to better health for us all.”

Gao’s record of having 12 peer-reviewed publications, five of which she was the first author, set her apart from other applicants and confirmed her potential as a future researcher. She has shown high productivity in terms of publications, and great success in converting data into quality research conclusions.

“It is such a big surprise and honor for me to be the first recipient of this fellowship,” said Gao. “Most lung cancer cases are diagnosed at later stages when treatment options are less likely to be curative. I hope my research results can be used to work towards earlier detection of the disease to increase its overall survival rate.”

Throughout her fellowship, Gao’s research will focus on biomarkers with the aim of revealing possible mechanisms in lung cancer development. She hopes to advance strategies for early detection and the prediction of distant metastases.

“Clinical Labs of Hawaiʻi is very proud to partner with the UH Cancer Center to support scientific research in Hawaiʻi,” said Clinical Labs of Hawaiʻi President Ally Park. “It is important for us all to invest in ourselves, keep our talent in Hawaiʻi, and promote healthcare and research amongst our unique and diverse population.”

Findings from Gao’s research may help in finding ways to decrease lung cancer incidence and mortality throughout Hawaiʻi and beyond.

This fellowship is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), one of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

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