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Kenneth Chang, Executive Director, UCI Digestive Health Institute

Kenneth Chang, Executive Director, UCI Digestive Health Institute

Dr. Kenneth Chang is one of the world’s preeminent experts on stomachs.

For the past 30 years, from his base at the University of California, Irvine, he’s researched endoscopic modalities for cancer, staging and therapy.

He’s pioneered the development of endoscopic devices to the point where one of the world’s most popular, the Barrx90 radiofrequency device, bears the name “Chang Cap” due to his advances.

Chang’s conducted numerous clinical trials on the development of new biologic agents against esophageal and pancreatic cancers. He’s published more than 470 papers and book chapters. A holder of five patents, his CV is 97 pages long.

In 2017, he started the innovative UCI Digestive Health Institute that is teaching doctors around the world new methods of treating stomach diseases.

Chang’s goals are nothing less than to make the deadly pancreatic cancer a treatable disease, cure esophageal cancers, create a “colon cancer-free” Orange County and curtail obesity and diabetes with early detection methods.

For all these reasons, Dr. Chang won an Innovator of the Year Award during the Business Journal’s seventh annual awards ceremony on Sept. 9 at the Irvine Marriott. 

“There are two parts to innovation,” he told the Business Journal.

“Coming up with a new thing, and asking, ‘How do I get this to more people who need it?’”

Every Ivy League School

As a child of Chinese immigrants, Chang grew up in New York.

He was so impressive in high school that his counselor encouraged Chang to apply to every Ivy League university.

That’s when he learned about Brown University, which enticed him with the option to attend medical school. He realized that all he wanted to do was help people.

After three years as an undergrad, Chang took a year off from school to focus on medical missions overseas in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Going from an inner city hospital to a small fishing village, Chang witnessed the difficulty of building a hospital from the ground up with no money or resources.

He watched local residents make needles from fishing hooks and use fishing nets for suture materials.

“Everything they did, they had to innovate,” he said. “Everything they had, they created.”

His aspirations to continue his work in underserved areas only grew as he returned to finish medical school at Brown. Once Chang finished his residency at Rhode Island Hospital, he followed his wife, Chrissie, to California to continue his career.

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After asking his missionary partners what they needed the most help in, Chang found his specialty in gastroenterology and liver disease. He chose the UCI School of Medicine for his academic fellowship, studying gastroenterology and hepatology from 1988 to 1991.

Because he had to care for his three children, including one with autism, the Chang family decided to put their mission plans aside and remain in Southern California.

Obesity Epidemic

Over the years, he’s collected many titles, including the Vincent and Anna Kong endowed chair in GI Endoscopic Oncology and chief of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, at the UCI School of Medicine.  

A decade ago, he foresaw that the obesity epidemic in the U.S. would also drive an increase in the incidence of fatty liver disease, a silent condition that is estimated to affect 80 million Americans.

By 2020, a harmful form of the disease, called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), surpassed hepatitis as the number one reason Americans need liver transplants.

Chang developed a new tool—called the Endoscopic Ultrasound Guided Portal Pressure Gradient—that can assess liver health and diagnose the advance of the disease. He created a pilot study to show the procedure could be done safely and accurately. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the device.

Since then, Chang has successfully treated patients and has taught the procedure to hundreds of top specialists around the world through UCI’s Digestive Health Institute.

At the Digestive Health Institute, the first of its kind, more than 40 world-class physicians and 100 additional healthcare professionals treat diseases and disorders of the gastrointestinal tract, among the most prevalent conditions contributing to illness and death among Americans today. It has eight offices spread throughout Orange County.

The institute’s flagship is the H. H. Chao Comprehensive Digestive Disease Center, where Chang is also the medical director.

The H.H. Chao Comprehensive Digestive Disease Center is a 38,000-square-foot facility in Orange that is among the few in the nation dedicated to providing state-of-the-art care to patients with all digestive diseases.

UCI is also building a new $1.2 billion healthcare campus that will hold expanded digestive health research.

UCI Praise

While he is celebrated for his three-plus decades at UC Irvine and leading the first digestive health institute of its kind, Chang himself praised the university, saying it has an amazing environment for innovation and it prioritizes progress over finances.

He is now focusing on what he calls the second stage of innovation—getting the newest techniques to people who need it in Orange County.

“Innovation through compassion,” Chang said, describing his mission in OC.

“When Orange County sees us as valuable, that will help our ability to help.” 

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