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Cancer director feeds a vision


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POSTED: Wednesday, March 11, 2009

In the past, a cloud of politics and financial territorialism between the hospitals and the University of Hawaii occasionally diverted attention from stellar cancer research and treatment in Hawaii. Whether or not he becomes permanent director of the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii, Dr. Michele Carbone, currently the interim director, intends to put an end to that. And a little bit of Italian wine and fresh marinara are paving the way.

Carbone's charming, engaging personality combined with good food yields “;a little magic,”; said Art Ushijima, president and CEO of The Queen's Health Systems. When in the Carbone home, people gather around the stove as he chops and sizzles and chats.

“;It's not about following his agenda as much as getting to know each other,”; Ushijima said. “;The topic isn't always about business, but you eventually get around to it. It fits right in with the local style ... the talk-story culture, but Michele brings his own dimension to that. He's articulating a vision.”;

This enterprise recently included convening the chief executives of major hospitals in Hawaii to sign an agreement that promotes collaboration for the benefit of patients, despite economic necessities that place them in competition with one another.

It also revolves around a concerted effort to break ground on the new Cancer Research Center in Kakaako, retain assigned funds from the tobacco tax fund and bring new faculty to the Cancer Center, highlighted by a Translational Cancer Medicine Symposium last month that invited notable researchers from around the world to present their findings in Hawaii.

The Cancer Center's current grant money is precariously close to dropping below the level needed to retain its National Cancer Institute designation, which is why it's essential to recruit about 12 new scientists who possess grants by September 2010. Losing this prestigious designation — there are only 63 in the country — could end a stream of revenue from the National Institutes of Health, and harm the Cancer Center's reputation and its ability to attract top researchers.

But meeting these goals requires the cooperation of all of the hospitals, which provide opportunities for clinical work and competitive salaries. The solution, Carbone hopes, lies in the ability to bring the right people together over dishes of finely cooked pasta.

Dr. Jerris Hedges, dean of the John A. Burns School of Medicine, noted that it's difficult not to relax and open up in this kind of environment, and Carbone has a gift for thinking globally and acting intimately.

“;He's someone who looks to build bridges,”; said Hedges, and his cooking is one of “;many tools to help people realize that they have more in common than differences.”;

His collaborative attitude encourages the same in others. “;The food and the camaraderie and hosting people in his own house go a long way,”; said Dr. Virginia Pressler, executive vice president of Hawaii Pacific Health, which includes Straub Clinic and Hospital and Kapiolani Hospital for Women & Children. “;It creates the right atmosphere for people to put down their shields. It's very effective.”;

Indeed, Carbone managed to lure the 2008 Nobel Prize recipient from Germany on short notice. Dr. Harald zur Hausen said he came to speak at the symposium because he wanted to know more about the research happening in Hawaii. “;I knew there would be some interesting people here,”; he said.

Carbone's progress has impressed Andre Bachmann, an assistant professor who is making an impact with his research of the treatment of neuroblastoma patients. “;It's genius, that's all I can say. Some people believe that if it comes from Hawaii, it can't be good. But he changes that attitude.”;