HONOLULU - The University of Hawaii Cancer Center has received $3.58 million from an anonymous donor for mesothelioma research.
University officials are expected to announce the gift - the second largest in the center's history - today.
The funds will help the center's director, Dr. Michele Carbone, research whether there are locations in the United States exposed to a fiber called erionite that is more potent than asbestos in causing mesothelioma, a cancer of the cells that line the chest and abdominal cavities.
The large donation helps "solidify Hawaii as a leading place in the research of mesothelioma," said Carbone, one of the nation's leading experts in mesothelioma. "Most of this money will be spent here in Hawaii. It will create jobs here in Hawaii."
In 2001, the center received an anonymous planned gift of $6.7 million for general cancer research. That funding is coming to the center in this fiscal year, center spokeswoman Kellie Tormey said.
The center was established as an independent institute in 1981 and is one of 65 National Cancer Institute-designated research centers in the country. A Honolulu research facility under construction is scheduled to open in 2013.
The latest gift will allow the center to research ways to prevent and treat mesothelioma. The current median survival from diagnosis is 12 months. A French scientist has already been recruited to the center thanks in part to the donation.
According to the American Cancer Society, mesothelioma is fairly rare. There are about 2,000 to 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma each year in the United States. The average five-year survival rate is 5 to 10 percent.
For the past 15 years, Carbone has been studying a region of Turkey where nearly 50 percent of its residents die of mesothelioma. His team's findings determined the epidemic is caused by exposure to erionite, a naturally occurring mineral in rocks used to build homes there.
The area accounts for about a quarter of the 40 to 60 new cases of mesothelioma in Turkey every year.
The gift will help study other parts of the United States such as North Dakota, where the erionite is in rocks used to pave roads in the rural, western part of the state.
"We are still in time to intervene, to clear up these areas and reduce the exposure," Carbone said, so that what happened in Turkey doesn't happen in the United States.
The National Institutes of Health has planned a conference this fall to discuss potential public health concerns related to erionite exposure in the United States, Carbone said, adding that the Environmental Protection Agency is also looking into the issue.
Carbone said he hopes the gift will show Hawaii residents that there is leading cancer research happening locally. The state has its share of asbestos exposure in Navy shipyards, he noted.
He hinted at scientific breakthroughs the center is capable of: The center is on the verge of announcing a discovery of how to identify those exposed to carcinogenic fibers who are at higher risks for developing the cancer, Carbone said. Only a tiny fraction of those exposed get cancer.