Alika Maunakea, PhD

Alika K. Maunakea, PhD

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Full Member, Cancer Biology Program, University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center

Academic Appointment(s):
Professor, Department of Anatomy, Biochemistry and Physiology (ABP), John A. Burns School of Medicine, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Graduate Faculty, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Department of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering (MBBE)
Department of Public Health Studies (PHS)
Department of Developmental and Reproductive Biology (DRB)
Department of Cell and Molecular Biology (CMB)
Neuroscience Specialization Program
Kanaka Maoli Institute (KMI), Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge

PhD , Biomedical Sciences, University of California, San Francisco
Postdoctoral Researcher, NIH, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), Laboratory of Molecular Immunology

Honor(s) and Award(s)

2022, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) Science Diversity Leadership Award, Honorable Mention Recipient (19 out of 406 applicants; 4.6%)
2019, University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa, nominee for the Blavatnik National Awards in Life Sciences 
2017, Keystone Symposia Early Career Investigator Travel Award, Diversity in Life Sciences Program, Epigenetics & Human Disease: Progress from Mechanisms to Therapeutics
2014, Keystone Symposia Early Career Investigator Travel Award, Diversity in Life Sciences Program, Neuroepigenetics
2014 – 2018, NHLBI-K01 Mentored Career Development Award to Promote Faculty Diversity in Biomedical Research
2012 – 2014, The Queen’s Medical Center Fellow, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi
2005 – 2008, National Research Service Award (NIH, F-31 fellowship)

Research Focus

The primary goal of the Maunakea lab is to better understand the molecular basis of environmental and epigenetic interactions that consequently influence cellular phenotypes relevant to health outcomes, in particular those that underlie neurological deficiencies, cardiometabolic disorders, and cancer. The majority of the research in the lab involves investigating how DNA methylation and histone modifications collectively operate to inform transcript heterogeneity through interactions with the basal transcription machinery, pre-mRNA splicing factors, and chromatin-associated proteins in the context of normal development and how alterations to these components of the chromatin landscape contribute to disease. To enable this research, high-throughput massively parallel genomic sequencing coupled with various immunoprecipitation technologies (i.e. MeDIP-Seq, ChIP-Seq, ChIA-PET, HiC-Seq, etc) and transcriptomic assays (i.e. RNA-Seq, Ampli-Seq, etc) are integrated using bioinformatic tools. It is anticipated that results from these research activities will lead to a better understanding of disease etiology, and thereby provide new avenues for disease diagnosis, prevention, and treatment. Partnerships and collaborations with several other divisions within the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (i.e. Institute for Biogenesis Research, Pacific Biosciences Research Center, Office of Public Health Studies, Hawaiʻinuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center, University of Hawaiʻi Economic Research Organization), University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, Chaminade University of Honolulu, MAʻO Organic Farms, and others collectively contribute to research and educational activities in the Maunakea lab.

Inherent in the traditional Native Hawaiian concept of health (mauli ola) is the understanding that environmental factors, including nutrition and social behaviors, trans-generationally impact health outcomes in individuals and communities. Epigenetic mechanisms may now explain molecular links between these environmental factors and health outcomes. Research in the Maunakea lab focuses on elucidating the molecular functions of epigenetic mechanisms and how they play a role in gene-environment interactions that underlie diseases of health disparity afflicting the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations through a Community-based Participatory Research (CBPR) approach and community partnerships. These studies also involve investigating the relationship between the human gut microbiome composition (using a 16S metagenomics approach), epigenetic regulation of immune cell function, and health, thereby empowering community-based organizations with evidence-based research.

Selected Publications

Becerra C, Wells RK, Kunihiro BP, Lee RH, Umeda L, Allan N, Rubas N, McCraken TA, Nunokawa CKL, Lee M, Pidlaoan FGS, Phankitnirundorn K, Dye CK, Peres R, Juarez R, Maunakea AK. (2023). Examining the immunoepigenetic-gut microbiome axis in self-esteem of Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders. Front Genet. Apr 19;14:1125217. doi: 10.3389/fgene.2023.1125217. eCollection 2023.

Wells RK, Kunihiro BP, Phankitnirundorn K, Peres R, McCraken TA, Umeda L, Lee RH, Kim DY, Juarez R, Maunakea AK. (2022). Gut microbial indicators of metabolic health underlie age-related differences in obesity and diabetes risk among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. Front Cell Infect Microbiol. Dec 21;12:1035641. doi: 10.3389/fcimb.2022.1035641. eCollection 2022.

Takahashi E, Allan N, Peres R, Ortug A, Valli B, Ethier E, Levman J, Tsujimura K, Baumer N, van der Kouwe A,Vargas-Maya NV, McCracken TA, Lee RH, Maunakea AK. (2023). Integration of structural MRI and epigenetic analyses hint at linked cellular defects of the subventricular zone and insular cortex in autism: Findings from a case study. Front Neurosci. Feb 3;16:1023665. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2022.1023665. eCollection 2022.

Baumer Y, Farmer N, Maunakea AK, Needham B, Powell-Wiley TM. (2022). Editorial: The biological impact of adversity on cardiovascular disease risk and obesity. Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine. 9:1022724. doi: 10.3389/fcvm.2022.1022724.

Juarez R, Phankitnirundorn K, Ramirez A, Peres R; Maunakea AK, Okihiro M. (2022). Vaccine Associated Shifts in SARS-CoV-2 Infectivity among the Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander Population in Hawaii. American Journal of Public Health. Sep 15:e1-e4. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2022.306973. Online ahead of print.PMID: 36108254.

Publication list via NIH MyBibliography

Active Grants

A. Maunakea, PI
NIH/National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
UG3/UH3: New Cohort Study of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) in Hawaiʻi
09/2022 – 08/2029

A. Maunakea, Co-Investigator; Berry, PI
NIH/National Institute of General Medical Sciences
“Integrative Center for Precision Nutrition and Human Health”
12/2021 -11/2026

A. Maunakea, PI
NIH/National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities
“Socioecological Determinants of Immunoepigenetic Signatures of Diabetes Risk in Indigenous Communities”
07/2021 – 06/2026

A. Maunakea, Co-Investigator; Enos, PI
DHHS/Office of Minority Health
“Center for Indigenous Innovation and Health Equity”
07/2021 – 06/2026