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The Hawaiʻi-based PONO study team: Marjorie Mau, Lani Park and Alika Maunakea

A $4-million National Institutes of Health (NIH) study led by scientists from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa will investigate diabetes, heart and lung health disparities in Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans. The award will establish the Pacific Ocean Native Observational (PONO) Health Legacy Study, a longitudinal cohort study of these populations in the U.S. followed over decades that will focus on health resilience and risk factors aimed at disease prevention.

PONO will measure group characteristics and risk factors that are important to understand the likelihood of developing disease. A total of 10,000 participants (18–65 years old) will be enrolled from Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Asian American (Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and South Asian Indian) communities that are historically understudied in the U.S.

This “once in a lifetime” study involves five sites located in Hawaiʻi, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York. The Fred Hutchinson Center in Seattle will serve as the overall coordinating center, with Hawaiʻi serving as the primary recruitment site for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

Led by locals

Among many firsts, the Hawaiʻi-based PONO Study will be led by three “locally-grown” scientists: Marjorie Mau and Alika Maunakea of the John A. Burns School of Medicine, and Lani Park from the UH Cancer Center.

Mau and Maunakea are both Native Hawaiian researchers who have worked for decades with multiple Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities to co-create and co-implement NIH-funded projects.

It is our long term goal to stay connected with all of Hawaiʻi‘s diverse racial and ethnic populations…
—Marjorie Mau

“We are thrilled and excited to be part of this opportunity to expand Hawaiʻi’s biomedical and clinical epidemiology expertise at a national level,” said Mau, the lead principal investigator. “PONO promises to fill a huge gap on health inequity data while at the same time reaching out to our communities serving Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders to engage, share and provide research training opportunities.”

Maunakea, the only Native Hawaiian epigeneticist in the U.S., added, “One of our major goals is to better understand how the expression of our genes are impacted by environmental, behavioral, social-cultural and biological factors (epigenetics).”

PONO will also examine novel socio-environmental and structural factors linked to health and well being,” said Park. “Thus, providing potentially novel insights into understanding how to optimize disease prevention especially in these understudied populations.”

The PONO Study Team is currently working with the coordinating center and the other four sites to set-up and train research and community staff on the study protocol and assessment tools.

“It is our long term goal to stay connected with all of Hawaiʻi’s diverse racial and ethnic populations so we can bring some of the latest research science back to Hawaiʻi’s health providers and communities in a meaningful way. Getting the word out as quickly as possible will allow PONO to give back to our communities,” said Mau. “So, stay tuned for more good things to come!”

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