FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Dr. Michele (pronounced Me-kell-ay) Carbone and his wife, Beth, prepare dinner for guests at their Black Point home.
UH cancer researcher’s interests coalesce in the kitchen
Dr. Michele Carbone cooks up the support needed to find a cure
An espresso maker sputters fragrant liquid into delicate china cups while Italian music plays from the speakers behind Dr. Michele Carbone's desk in the biomedical research building of the John A. Burns School of Medicine. Dressed in a Versace shirt, Armani pants and Ferragamo shoes (only Italian designers make their way into Carbone's closet), he settles into his chair to talk cancer, politics and food - topics rarely separated for long in Carbone's sphere.
The medical doctor with a Ph.D. degree is an expert in mesothelioma, and commands the majority of grants available in this area of study. He's also an accomplished chef, and once in a while, his vocation and avocation blend for advantageous results.
Around the time he agreed to host and cook for a fundraiser for the Italian Film Festival at his Black Point home, leaders from the National Cancer Institute approached him about doing the same for a $1,0000-a-plate fundraiser. In addition, his cooking may have helped inspire the construction of a new hospital in Turkey.
"What we've done for these people (in Cappadocia, Turkey) is incredible," says Carbone, who is the director of the Thoracic Oncology Program at the University of Hawaii. "We built for them a new village, and now a new hospital."
For this work, the American Association for Cancer Research presented the prestigious Landon Innovator Award for the best international collaboration related to the advancement of cancer prevention research - a $100,000 grant over two years - to Carbone and his team of researchers in April.
It all started about a decade ago, when Carbone visited Turkey as a keynote speaker. He discovered a small epidemic in several villages where 50 percent of residents die of mesothelioma, a type of cancer that affects the mesothelium, a protective sac that covers most of the body's internal organs.
Houses in these villages were constructed from soft volcanic rock containing erionite, a naturally occurring fibrous mineral similar to asbestos, a known cause of mesothelioma. However, Carbone learned that in some houses, everyone died. Yet in others, made from the same material a few yards away, everyone remained healthy. "You can see the danger of averages," he explains.
Furthermore, "houses of death" were usually destroyed, sending the contaminated dust into the air for all to breathe. So why wasn't everyone sick? Years of research resulting in a study Carbone published in the prestigious journal Nature revealed a genetic predisposition for mesothelioma.
Scientists call it a "gene-environment interaction." Carbone says he and his team are close to isolating that gene, which means more hope for early detection, treatment and a cure. They also identified the exposure to erionite as the likely trigger for developing the disease. Consequently, he became determined to reduce residents' contact with the mineral fiber.
Carbone persuaded officials in Cappadocia to construct a new village to prevent more illnesses and deaths. They wasted no time. On his computer, Carbone proudly shows photos of the new brick and mortar houses for 2,000 people.
Then he took it a step further. When he helped host a National Cancer Institute meeting in August at the John A. Burns School of Medicine, he invited the Turkish surgeon general to attend. Of course, the visit included a multicourse gourmet dinner that Carbone prepared himself. Along the way, he convinced the surgeon general and members of the cancer institute that he needed to study early detection of mesothelioma in Cappadocia, where the high incidence allows him to "get an answer in a short time at a fraction of the cost."
Unfortunately, no infrastructure existed. But the surgeon general agreed that the research called for a new hospital, and by April, the structure was completed. "Done! Built! Can you believe that?" Carbone laughs. "I had to go all the way to Turkey to find a politician who delivered."
This research has traveled to the United States, where Carbone's team is now studying three families with a high incidence of mesothelioma. "This is a big issue," he says. "This is my passion."