HAWAII AT WORK
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
David Hieber, senior scientist at Cardax Pharmaceuticals in Aiea, says it takes a certain kind of personality to be a scientist. Above, Hieber last week measured liquids in the biotech company's laboratory.
Captivated by carotenoids
David Hieber looks for ways to improve our health
A. David Hieber
Title: Senior scientist
Job: Examines the molecular mechanisms of carotenoids
David Hieber grew up in the small New Zealand town of Whakatane, where along the way he developed an interest in biochemistry. He went on to earn a Master of Science degree in the subject from the University of Otago, and then a doctorate from the University of Auckland, after which he moved here to Hawaii, in 1994, to work as a post-doctoral researcher in University of Hawaii's Department of Anatomy and Reproductive Biology. From there he went to work for the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii, then returned to UH to work in its Department of Plant Molecular Physiology. His focus there was the role of carotenoids in the growth of plants.
These days he's studying the role of carotenoids in human health and disease, as senior scientist at Cardax Pharmaceuticals Inc., a small firm in Aiea that was spun off early last year from Hawaii Biotech Inc.
Before joining Cardax, Hieber had been working for the startup biotech firm Kuehnle AgroSystems, based in Manoa.
A resident of Aiea, Hieber said, "One of the side benefits of changing jobs (from Kuehnle AgroSystems to Cardax Pharmaceuticals) was that I gave up my one-hour-a-day commute and joined the five-minute commute, which gives me more time at work, which is great."
Hieber, 41, lives with his wife, Leinani Cachola, whom he married in 1996.
Asked whether he intends to stay here or move back to New Zealand, Hieber said, "Well, I met Leinani here, so we'll either be in one of those two places."
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
David Hieber joined Cardax Pharmaceuticals a little more than a year ago to study carotenoids, well known for being antioxidants. Above, he carried cell-culture media in the lab.
What exactly are you doing as senior scientist at Cardax Pharmaceuticals
David Hieber: I'm essentially responsible for or involved in all the in-house experiments.
Q: What do those involve?
A: A lot of our work is principally human cell-culture-based experiments. We do a lot of experiments in trying to determine underlying molecular mechanisms.
Q: For what purpose?
A: Well, principally Cardax Pharmaceuticals develops small molecules for medical needs. So before we can actually test them out in the real world, there are a number of steps that have to take place, the first one being just some basic cell-culture research.
Q: So you have a laboratory where you conduct your research?
A: Yeah. We have at the company biochemistry and biological laboratories.
Q: How many other scientists are there at the company?
A: You mean bench scientists?
Q: What's a bench scientist?
A: A bench scientist is one who actually works in the lab, whereas a lot of professors at the university have their students or post graduates to work for them.
Q: So how many bench scientists are there then?
A: Probably, like, four or five.
Q: And do you have any research assistants?
A: Not directly under me, no. We do have one on the biology side and one on the biochemistry side.
Q: Do you spend a lot of time looking through microscopes?
A: Oh yeah, sure do.
Q: Are you also concerned with statistical analysis and stuff like that?
A: Yeah. As a scientist you're responsible for everything, from experimental design through actually implementing experiments, collecting the data, and the actual analysis of it.
Q: Do you work with human test subjects at all?
A: You mean people? No. There's some steps you gotta go through before you get there, and this is one of them. Eventually the goal of our company is to develop these molecules into actual pharmaceutical compounds.
Q: You sound like you're from Australia or New Zealand. Is that where you're from?
A: New Zealand.
Q: How long have you been in Hawaii?
A: I came over in October 1994, whatever that adds up to.
Q: And what was your first job here?
A: I was a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii. I was hired by the late Fred Greenwood (director of the Pacific Biomedical Research Center).
Q: Were you solicited to join Cardax or did you apply to be hired?
A: I was solicited to join Cardax around last July or last August.
Q: Why were they interested in you?
A: Mainly because of my background and having worked with some of these compounds before. My second position since moving to Hawaii was at the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii, where I worked under Dr. John Bertram. And that's where I developed my interest in carotenoids.
Q: What is a carotenoid ?
A: They're naturally occurring compounds.
Q: Like from carrots?
A: Yeah. That's exactly why they're named that. Beta carotene is one; lycopene is another.
Q: Those come from carrots, really?
A: The beta carotene does. The lycopene comes from the red in tomatoes.
Q: Why did you get interested in that?
A: At the time, I found them quite interesting, and although their properties are known for being antioxidants and compounds that are good for your health, very little is known about them at the molecular level.
Q: What were you doing for your immediately previous employer, Kuehnle AgroSystems?
A: After I left the cancer center, I started working at the university, and my interest in carotenoids took me away from how they affect humans into how they are actually made in plants, and what their role is in plants.
Q: What kind of a company was that?
A: They're a small startup, a biotech company, located in the Manoa Innovation Center.
Q: How long were you with Kuehnle AgroSystems?
A: Off and on for three or four years.
Q: Are you under any time or budgetary pressures as you conduct your research?
A: There's always time pressure.
Q: Like how?
A: Because you are fighting constraints, probably on funding and on the time of IP.
A: Intellectual property -- how long you have a patent for.
Q: If you discover something unique, will you get to share in the royalties?
A: Not really. I don't think you discover the Fountain of Youth. You discover little bits to the big puzzle all the time. Individually, it might not seem important, but together they make up the big picture.
Q: How long do you research something before you decide you've been pursuing a dead end?
A: That's an interesting question. You ask small questions and you try and answer them, and inevitably your results lead to more questions. You might have one answer, but you end up with two more questions.
Q: Has Cardax ever completed research on any product, and if so, what would that be?
A: The idea of a completed research is a bit of misnomer, because it's always ongoing.
Q: What made you decide to go into this kind of a job?
A: I think it's more a personality trait than anything. Science suits certain personalities better than others.
Q: What kind of hours do you put into this job?
A: You put in what needs to be done, unfortunately.
Q: Are you at work on the weekends?
A: You could theoretically be here 24/7. You have to temper it.
Q: Are there ever times when you're particularly excited about it?
A: Yeah, I think so. There are times when it can be very rewarding, and there are other times when it can be very frustrating. That goes back to certain personalities being suited or not suited.
Q: With all these scientific words that you use, is it hard sometimes at parties when people ask you what you do for a living?
A: (Laughter) You usually end up trying to explain to someone what carotenoids are, rather than what kind of research you do, whereas at my previous job at the university, I had a grant that was about changing the color of orchids, based on their carotenoid profile, so that was a lot more interesting to explain to someone -- or a lot easier.