Combating heart disease in the islands

Laboratory of Hearts video

By Paige L. Jinbo

As heart disease continues to be the No. 1 cause of death in Hawaii, it’s critical that the state’s hospitals are staffed enough trained cardiologists — 109 to be exact. However, research provided by the John A. Burns School of Medicine has shown that Hawai’i only has 62 trained cardiologists, 47 short of what’s deemed sufficient.

The John A. Burns School of Medicine is located at Kakaako.

The lack of cardiologists will ultimately affect the care provided to those suffering from cardiovascular diseases.

“It’s important that we have specialists to take care of you if you’re suffering from serious heart diseases,” said Ralph Shohet, director of JABSOM’s Center for Cardiovascular Research (CCR).

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in Hawai`i and across the nation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26.6 million people in the U.S. were diagnosed with heart disease in 2008. Nearly one out of four deaths in Hawai`i is caused by heart disease. In 2005, more than 2,900 people died from this disease.

Furthermore, native Hawaiians and methamphetamine users are the most vulnerable to cardiovascular diseases.

According to Shohet, native Hawaiians are a higher risk group for heart disease because of their genetics, culture and behavior. He also noted that a significant chunk of this population suffer from obesity and diabetes, two key risk factors for developing heart disease.

In addition to having a sufficient team of cardiologists, it’s vital that new research is continuously conducted to understand the heart and its complications. This ensures that necessary care is provided and that preventative action is taken.


Methamphetamine and the heart

Shohet is currently overseeing a pilot project that examines the effect that methamphetamine has on the heart.

The Center for Cardiovascular Research is dedicated to investigating the heart and its diseases.

While abuse of methamphetamine is a national issue, it’s a larger problem in Hawaii because it’s been in the islands since the 80s, explained Tina Shelton, director of communication for JABSOM.

“It’s sad and unfortunate that we all probably know someone who either had a meth problem or has one,” she said.

To better understand its affect on the heart, Shohet and his students have started a test model on mice. They’ve treated the mice with meth. The most common heart problem that meth users or former users will suffer from is cardiomyopathy — heart failure. Throughout this project, Shohet has noted that the mice have experienced depressed cardiac function. From this they’ll learn how to treat heart diseases in meth users effectively.


JABSOM is the future

In September, an anonymous donor endowed JABSOM’s CCR with $1 million.

“Donors know how important our university is,” said Margot Schrire, director of communication for the University of Hawaii Foundation.

The money will be used to train more cardiologists and provide extra funding to conduct pilot projects — such as the meth and mouse project — to better understand the heart and its diseases.

Marie Marcinko, lab manager of the CCR, cultures cells in the cell culturing laboratory.

“Hawaii needs research that focuses on how cardiovascular disease or different therapeutic applications affect our local population in particular,” said Rachel Boulay, education director for the CCR and assistant professor. “Gifts that support external funding allow us to focus on issues more pertinent to our local community.”

The $1 million will go toward enhancing four main areas: pilot projects, young cardiovascular disease investigators, the cardiovascular fellowship program and enlarging the CCR.

‘To better serve the community’


In addition, Shohet and his team are also looking to build a stronger fellowship program at Queen’s Medical Center.

Furthermore, the CCR has created its first three-year fellowship program. Through this program, young student fellows will have the opportunity to be trained at Queen’s and work there as well.


“It’s very exciting for all of us to learn new things,” Shohet said. “Ultimately, we just want to make people feel better with the treatment that we develop to better serve the community.”