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Former Hilo resident making her mark in cancer research


Since moving here from Taiwan in the fifth grade, Dr. Ann Chao has called Hilo home.

Now a resident of San Diego, she tries to return once or twice a year to visit parents, art teachers Linus and Jane Chao, and her sister, Grace.

But this week, Chao’s visit came at the tail end of a work-related trip that brought her to Honolulu to speak at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center. She was joined at the annual Weinman Symposium by two 2011 winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine to discuss the fight against cancer.

A product of Hawaii’s public school system, Chao pursued an undergraduate degree in gerontology at the University of Southern California, where she gained an appreciation for data and research.

“I went on to study reproductive aging and gerontology, and it was there that I got to work with scientists, and I was amazed that they could look at the data and make sense of them. I wanted to interpret data like that, so I got my master’s (degree) in biometry, and I did my thesis on cervical cancer,” she said. “I was inspired by these people I worked with.”

Thirty years later, Chao is married to a scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and has two children studying medicine.

And now, she’s the one doing the inspiring. She has applied her curiosity and skills to cancer research — and helping to disseminate that information to prevent and control cancer rates. Since 2012, she has served as the director of the East Asia Cancer Research Programs of the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Global Health.

“The ultimate, end goal is to reduce the burden of cancer deaths and cancers,” she said of her work. “We’re looking at the different factors associated with different types of cancers, and looking at how to decrease them. First, we have to know what causes cancer, what the risk factors are. And I think I’ve been fortunate to participate in large cohort studies, which take place over a long period of time, looking at people before they get sick, and following them through their life. … There’s not very many of (the studies) in the world.”

Unequivocally, she said, the most important advances in the world’s knowledge about what causes cancer have come from study of tobacco and cigarette smoking.

“Evidence has been accumulating over the last 50 or 60 years, and (smoking and tobacco) affects not just lung cancer, but many other diseases — respiratory, cardiovascular, and even affects children and the fetus. It’s the most important cause of cancer, and it’s something, if we eliminate it, we can help to control cancer worldwide,” Chao said. “We’re looking to find factors that are modifiable. Trying to find things that people can change themselves.”

She added it has been especially interesting and helpful to witness China’s rising use of tobacco products in comparison with its decline in the U.S.

“In East Asia, lung cancer is very important to study because of cigarette smoking. … In the U.S., we have seen our peak, at least for men. We may still see our peak for women, because they started to smoke later. But now we’re starting to see after years of tobacco control that death rates have now decreased. In East Asia, their tobacco epidemic is just now emerging,” she said.

Chao was joined by a number of cancer researchers Monday at the Weinman Symposium, which focused on bridging the U.S. and Asia in the fight against cancer.

“This year’s theme highlights cancer as a global health issue, and shows the pivotal role Hawaii plays in the international efforts to prevent, detect, and treat cancer,” UH Cancer Center Director Dr. Michele Carbone said in a written statement last week. “Researchers in Hawaii collaborate with scientists across the U.S. and the Asia-Pacific region, and that benefits everyone.”

The Nobel laureates who presented at the meeting included Dr. Jules A. Hoffmann, professor of integrative biology at the University of Strasbourg Institute for Advanced Studies, and Dr. Bruce A. Beutler, a regental professor and director of the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

The UH Cancer Center is one of 68 research institutions designated by the National Cancer Institute. For more information about the National Cancer Institute, visit cancer.gov.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.