Science & Technology

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Martian water, in a lab. Maria-Paz Zorzano, of the Centro de Astrobiologia in Madrid, Spain, recreates the conditions in which perchlorate salts would melt water during the Martian summer night. Photo from Maria-Paz Zorzano

By Daniel Dunaief

It’s not exactly an oasis filled with unexplored life in the middle of a barren dessert. Rather, it is likely a small amount of liquid water that forms during the night and evaporates during the day. What makes this water so remarkable and enticing, however, is that, while it’s in our solar system, it is far, far away: about 225 million miles.

The rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in the summer of 2012 after a 253-day journey from Earth, has gathered weather data from the Gale Crater on the Red Planet for the last year. That data has suggested the likely presence of liquid water.

“The cool part of this is the present-day nature of it,” said Tim Glotch, an associate professor at the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University, who studies the role of water in shaping the surface of Mars. “It’s there right now.”

The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station  on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover includes temperature and humidity sensors mounted on the rover’s mast. Photo from Maria-Paz Zorzano
The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover includes temperature and humidity sensors mounted on the rover’s mast. Photo from Maria-Paz Zorzano

The liquid water is in the form of brine, which is a mix of water and salts. The perchlorate salts on or near the surface of Mars melt the ice that forms during the cold parts of the Martian night. It’s similar, Glotch said, to the way salts melt black ice during a frigid Long Island evening.

Curiosity, which is about the size of a small car, can’t detect this liquid water because its electronics don’t operate during temperatures that plunge at night to around 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

The findings, which were reported last week in the journal Nature Geosciences, have competing implications. For starters, said lead author Javier Martin-Torres, who works at Lulea University of Technology in Sweden and is a part of the Spanish Research Council in Spain and a member of Curiosity’s science team, the water is in one of the least likely places on Mars.

“We see evidence of conditions for brine in the worst-case scenario on Mars,” Martin-Torres said in a Skype interview last week from Sweden. “We are in the hottest and driest place on the planet. Because we know that perchlorates are all over the planet — which we have seen from satellite images — we think there must be brine everywhere.”

Given the radiation, temperature fluctuations and other atmospheric challenges, however, the conditions for life, even microorganisms, to survive in these small droplets of water are “terrible,” Martin-Torres said.

Still, the fact that “we see a water cycle, in the present atmosphere, is very exciting,” Martin-Torres said. “This has implications in meteorology.”

Deanne Rogers, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook, said the likelihood of water bound to perchlorate salts directly affects her own research.

“Something I work on is sulfate minerals on Mars,” she said. “They can take on water and get rid of them easily by exchanging water vapor with the atmosphere.” She may incorporate perchlorates into future grant proposals.

Briny water, Rogers said, may also explain the dark streaks that appear on Mars at mid and low latitudes. These streaks look like running water going down a slope.

“People try to explain what these are,” she said. “It can’t be pure liquid water. It might be perchlorates taking on water vapor and producing dark streaks.”

By landing on the planet and sending readings back to researchers, Curiosity and other land-based vehicles can offer firsthand evidence of environmental conditions.

“Direct measurements are way more precise than what we can do from orbit,” Rogers said.

In the first week after the paper came out, Martin-Torres said he spent about 85 percent of his work time talking to the media, scientists or people asking questions about his studies. He has also received more than 10 times the typical number of requests from prospective Ph.D. students who would like to work in his lab while scientists from around the world have reached out to form collaborations.

Rogers explained that students might react to this kind of discovery the same way she did to other data and images from Mars in the early stages of her career.

“When Pathfinder landed in 1997, I saw the beautiful, colorful panoramas in the newspaper,” she said. “That’s when I knew what I was going to do. I hope that kids feel the same way.”

Martin-Torres, who said he has already submitted additional research proposals based on this discovery, described the current era of Mars research as the “golden age of Mars exploration.”

Geese hang out on the banks of Lake Ronkonkoma. Their waste pollutes the lake. Photo by Phil Corso

Long Island’s largest freshwater lake is not what it used to be, but North Shore lawmakers and educators are teaming up to bring it back.

Darcy Lonsdale and her students attending the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences arrived at the docks of the 243-acre Lake Ronkonkoma on Tuesday morning, equipped with various aquatic testing supplies to study marine life in the waters. Bill Pfeiffer, part of the Nesconset Fire Department’s water rescue team, helped guide the students as residents and government officials flanked the docks in talks of a Lake Ronkonkoma that once was.

Pfeiffer has been diving in and exploring around Lake Ronkonkoma for years, mapping out the bottom of the lake and chronicling the different kinds of debris on its floor, which he said includes anything from parts of old amusement park rides to pieces of docks.

Darcy Lonsdale speaks to students at Lake Ronkonkoma before they take samples. Photo by Phil Corso
Darcy Lonsdale speaks to students at Lake Ronkonkoma before they take samples. Photo by Phil Corso

“This lake needs a healthy amount of attention,” he said. “It has been appearing clearer, but [Superstorm] Sandy turned it into a brown mud hole again.”

The lake is home to various species, including largemouth bass and chain pickerel.

Members of the Lake Ronkonkoma Advisory Task Force hosted Pfeiffer and the students with hopes of gaining a deeper understanding of the waters and encouraging the four jurisdictions overseeing it — Brookhaven, Islip and Smithtown towns and Suffolk County — to form one united board to advocate for the lake.

Newly elected county Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said the goal was to compile data that will help secure grant money, channel stormwater runoff away from the lake and garner legislative support for the lake.

“Years ago, this was a resort. There were tons of beachfronts. There were cabins and cabanas,” she said. “This is something we all could be proud of. It could be a site where people recreate.”

Looking ahead, Kennedy said she hoped a united front could attract more foot traffic and fishing to the lake. She stood along the waters on Tuesday morning and said she was anxious to see the kinds of results the Stony Brook students help to find.

“I am dying to know what the pH levels are at the bottom of the lake,” she said.

Lawmakers and Lake Ronkonkoma advocates said one of the biggest hurdles in the way of cleaner waters rested in the population of geese gaggling around the area. As more geese make their way in and around the lake, the nitrogen in their waste pollutes the water. Volunteers with the Lake Ronkonkoma civic had to sweep the length of the dock Tuesday morning, as Pfeiffer prepared for the students, in order to rid it of geese excrement.

“To help the lake, relocating or terminating some of the geese might not be a bad idea,” Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said.

The students could be funneling data to the different municipalities overseeing the lake by the end of the summer.

“You want a report that will spell out how to improve the clarity of this water,” Romaine said. “The students are welcome back anytime.”

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Patricia Thompson photo from Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

Patricia Thompson gets a call from her sister Kathy Hobson when people in San Angelo, Texas — where Thompson grew up and where her sister and brother live — when someone has cancer. They want to know what Thompson thinks of their treatment.

While Thompson is not a medical doctor, she has been working as a scientist to develop ways to discriminate high-risk patient populations from low-risk patients to limit “toxic treatments in low-risk individuals” and improve the efficacy of aggressive treatment in high risk-patients. The goal, she said, is to better treat patients based on the specific pathobiology of their disease.

Thompson, who came to Stony Brook University last October as a professor of pathology and associate director of Basic Research at the Cancer Center, is pleased with the support from the university.

“There’s a real convergence of factors, including a strong commitment from the leadership, the Simons Center and the university medical school faculty and staff at Stony Brook,” she said. “We all want to see the Stony Brook Cancer Center bring prestige to our community, attract the finest talent in cancer research and clinical care and attract innovators and job builders.”

Thompson said Cancer Center Director Yusuf Hannun, Medical School Research Dean Lina Obeid, Pathology Department Chairman Ken Shroyer, and Dean of the Medical School Ken Kaushansky have all led the charge.
Shroyer is pleased Thompson joined the effort. “Bringing her here was an incredible coup,” he said. She brings “real national prominence” and led one of the “most important clinical and translational research programs in breast and colorectal cancer.”

Thompson is committed to furthering her own research studies, while balancing between critical basic science discoveries and their clinical impact.

For some scientists, she wants to assist researchers as they move from the bench to the first human study. She helps them understand who needs to be involved to advance a potential diagnostic tool or novel treatment.

Still, she endorses the benefits of basic research. “Application is always an important long-term goal, but scientific exploration for new discovery is critical to advancements,” she said. Applied and basic research are “neither mutually exclusive approaches.”

Thompson studies colorectal and breast cancer because both have an inflammatory component and an immune element. She’s exploring what is shared between these two cancers as common targets for prevention and treatment.

Colon cancer provides a window that helps scientists and doctors understand the way cancer progresses.
“Our ability to study the premalignant to malignant progression in colorectal cancer has provided important basic knowledge of how cancers develop and taught us about how cells defend against tumorigenesis and how these systems fail,” she said.

Thompson went through some formative professional and personal experiences during graduate school that shaped her career. In the mid-1990s, she was studying an autoimmune disease in which she worked on an animal model with a neuroimmunologist.

“I wanted to know that all this work I was doing with animals was contributing to the disease in humans,” she said.

Around the same time, her father, Jim Thompson, who owned and operated Angelo Tool Company, learned he had stage IV colorectal cancer. He was diagnosed in 1995, before major advances in colorectal cancer treatment. Her father received compassionate care use of a new therapy, enabling him to live for three more years, considerably longer than his initial two-month prognosis. If he had been diagnosed five years later and received a platinum-based regimen, he would have “gained even more time,” she said.

Thompson said she and her family struggle with the fact that her father showed symptoms he kept to himself, largely out of fear. If his cancer had been detected earlier, she believes it is likely he could have been cured.

She suggests people not be “afraid of a cancer diagnosis” and recommends “routine screening” and consultation with a doctor if they show symptoms.

Thompson lives in Rocky Point with her husband, Michael Hogan, who is the vice president of life sciences at Applied DNA Sciences.

As for her work, Thompson believes her research might help physicians and their patients.
Her research aims to develop “diagnostic tests that help in prognosis” while identifying “patients that may achieve more benefit from aggressive chemotherapy,” she said.

Evelyn Berezin is honored this month. Photo from Stony Brook University

A mere accident altered the life of Evelyn Berezin, and now, at almost 90 years old, she is being honored as one of the pioneers in the computer industry.

After 75 years since building her first computer, Berezin — a Poquott resident — is being honored and inducted into the Computer History Museum on April 25 in Mountain View, Calif., because of her impact on the ever-growing technology industry.

“Most people don’t know what a woman of great accomplishment she is,” said longtime friend Kathleen Mullinix, who will be traveling to the event with the woman she described as “a brilliant person of substance.”

Berezin said the best part about all of her success since logging into the computer field decades ago is the fact that she had no idea her life would turn out the way it did. She said she initially thought she would take the physics route at a young age, but it all changed for the best.

“I got into it by accident,” Berezin said. “It was so early in the game, I didn’t know what it was.”

But even though her life didn’t turn out exactly how she planned it, she said she has not looked back once since beginning her journey.

Berezin was born in the Bronx on April 12, 1925. At 15, she graduated high school and started at Hunter College, where she found an interest in physics, which was not an area of study at her all-girls school.

The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, her high school physics teacher knocked on her door and offered her a research job in the field she wanted.

“Every boy in the country was given a number to be drafted,” Berezin recalled on how she was able to get the job. “I happened to be there at the right time.”

At age of 16, Berezin lied about her age to get the job. She said her height helped her pass for 18, so she began working in the lab while attending college at night. She eventually studied math at Brooklyn Polytech, physics and chemistry at NYU and English at Hunter.

Four years later, she received a scholarship from NYU and accomplished her dream and received her degree in physics.

“It’s what I really wanted,” Berezin said.

After graduation, she received an Atomic Energy Commission fellowship while still working toward her Ph.D. Her dream shifted when she met her husband in 1951. Although the two did not have a steady salary, they decided to marry. So the search for a job began.

“I was told [there was] no way I would get a physics job in 1951 because of the Korean War,” Berezin said.

She then met someone who would forever change her life. A recruiter told her there were very few physics jobs in the government. So she decided to ask about computers, even though the industry was in its infancy.

“I had no idea why I asked,” Berezin said. “I never even heard of a computer.”

She landed her first job working for Electronic Computer Corporation for $4,500 a year — a huge increase from her previous $1,600 salary.

Before the company went bankrupt in 1957, she designed three or four different computers that were used by various companies. She then moved on to a job at Teleregister making computers that would distribute stock market information across the country.

After traveling all the way to Connecticut for her job, Berezin decided to switch jobs but stay in the computer business. She took a job with Digitronics and began designing computers with great complexity and speed.

After all her hard work, she still felt she wasn’t getting what she wanted.

“In 1969 I decided I would never get to be vice president because I was a woman,” Berezin said. “I decided to start my own company.”

It was then that Berezin’s company Redactron was born. From 1969 to 1975 she worked hard to build the company up with roughly 500 employees.

During the 1970s, the economy took a dip, when she said money was not coming in and interest rates were high. She decided to sell the company to the Burroughs Corporation for roughly $25 million.

She continued to work at Burroughs as part of the sale.

“At that time you didn’t work on the computer, you worked in them,” Berezin recalled of the large machines on which she worked.

After leaving Burroughs, Berezin spent the rest of her time getting involved in start-up companies and moved to Long Island.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the North Shore-LIJ Health System are partnering up to help cancer patients benefit from new research. File photo

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the North Shore-LIJ Health System say they are partnering up to align research with clinical services in an effort to treat the health system’s nearly 16,000 cancer cases each year.

The partnership, announced last week, will benefit from more than $120 million investment that will be used to accelerate cancer research, diagnosis and treatment. The money will also be used to develop a new clinical research unit at the North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute in Lake Success, NY. The unit will support the early clinical research of cancer therapies while also being used to train clinicians in oncology, the branch of medicine that deals with cancer. The source of the investment is not being disclosed.

“This is a transformative affiliation for both institutions, bringing the cutting-edge basic discovery science and translational cancer research at CSHL to one of the largest cancer treatment centers in the United States,” Cold Spring Harbor Lab President and CEO Bruce Stillman said in a press release.

As part of the affiliation, clinician-scientists will also be trained to perform preclinical cancer research and conduct early-stage human clinical trials to help further research.

“Cancer patients at North Shore-LIJ are going to benefit from the world’s leading cancer research centers,” Dagnia Zeidlickis, vice president of communications for Cold Spring Harbor Lab said in a phone interview Monday.

The partnership is just the latest move made by North Shore-LIJ to improve cancer care. Over the past two years, the health system invested more than $175 million to expand cancer treatment centers throughout Long Island and New York City.

Recently, North Shore-LIJ completed an $84 million expansion of the institute’s headquarters in Lake Success. It consolidated all cancer services offered by North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center in a state-of-the-art 130,000-square-foot facility, including ambulatory hematology/oncology, chemotherapy and radiation medicine, surgical oncology and brain tumor services, according to a press release.

North Shore-LIJ is also building a new $34 million, 45,500-square-foot outpatient cancer center in Bay Shore and is pursuing other major expansions on Long Island and in Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island and Westchester County.

“Bringing the scientists of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory together with the more than 200 academic oncologists and clinicians of the North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute will transform our approach to cancer research and treatment throughout the New York area,” North Shore-LIJ President and CEO Michael Dowling said in a statement.

Cold Spring Harbor Lab’s researchers have been studying cancer since the early 70s and have made several discoveries that have helped diagnose and treat cancer patients. In 1982, the lab was part of the discovery of the first human cancer gene. The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Cancer Center has been a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center since 1987, and is the only such center on Long Island, according to the statement.

The lab’s research focuses on many different types of cancers: breast, lung, prostate, pancreas, cervix, ovary and skin, as well as leukemia and lymphoma, carcinoid tumors, sarcomas and more.

The cancer institute is part of the 19 health systems that makes up the North Shore-LIJ Health System. According to Zeidlickis, North Shore-LIJ cares for more than 16,000 new cancer cases each year and is New York State’s largest hospital system.

Under the terms of the partnership, both North Shore-LIJ and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory will continue as independent organizations governed by their respective boards of trustees.

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John Haley photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Once they reach their destination, they wreak havoc, destroying areas critical to life. All too often, when cancer spreads, or metastasizes, through the body, it becomes fatal.

John Haley, a Research Associate Professor in the Pathology Department at Stony Brook, is trying to figure out how cancer become metastatic and, even further, what they do to avoid recognition by the immune system.

Haley is “working on the mechanisms by which metastasis occurs,” he said. He is also studying the “immune recognition of tumor cells and, in the near future, wants to link the two.”

Understanding the way metastasis works can greatly reduce mortality in cancer, Haley said. Researchers are currently attempting to develop therapies that target metastatic cells, but these are often more difficult to kill than their primary counterparts, Haley explained.

The stakes are high, as 90 percent of cancer deaths are due to complications from the spread of cancer rather than the primary tumor itself, he said.

About 80 percent of human cancers are carcinomas, which are derived from epithelial cells. Those are the cells that make up the skin, and line the stomach and intestines.

“As cancers become metastatic, those cells have the ability to shape shift,” he said.

They become much more like fibroblasts, which are underneath the skin and glue the skin to bone and make up connective tissue layers. Haley said he has made some progress in understanding the molecular mechanism that allows cells to shift from epithelial to fibroblastic cells. They have “defined factors which promote” this transition, with differences in survival and growth pathways.

Haley works with a machine called a mass spectrometer, in which he identifies proteins in complex biological samples and measures how changes in composition alters function. He spends about half his time working on his own research and the other half assisting other researchers who are seeking to get a clearer view of key changes in proteins in their work.

In his own research, he wants to understand how cancers modify a cell’s proteins. He has helped define how cancers can change their protein signaling pathways to become drug resistant, which suggests targets for drug therapies.

Haley is tapping into an area of science that many other researchers are exploring, called bioinformatics. Using statistics and mathematical models, these scientists are cutting down on the number of genes and proteins they study, honing in on the ones that have the greatest chance to cause, or prevent, changes in a cell.

“We’re taking the data sets we’ve generated and trying to predict what we should look for in human patient samples,” Haley said. “We can find a tumor cell that have mutations or this expression profile and find drugs they are sensitive to.” Once scientists find those drugs, researchers can test them in cell cultures, then in mouse models and eventually in people, he said.

“We try to isolate someone’s cancer to understand what the molecular drivers are that occur in that cancer,” Haley said. The approach, as it is much of modern medicine, is to understand the patient’s genetics and biochemistry to select for a drug that would be effective against the particular mutations present in their tumor.

A resident of Sea Cliff, Haley is married to Lesley, whom he met while he was pursuing his PhD at Melbourne University. A native Australian, Lesley was completing her Masters in Opera when the couple met at a tennis match. They still play today. Lesley has sung at New York premieres for several living composers at concert venues including Avery Fischer Hall. She teaches music at her studio in Sea Cliff. Their children share their interests. John is a freshman studying biochemistry at Stony Brook University and Emma, who is a senior at North Shore High School, plans to study science and singing.

As for his work, Haley would like to see his efforts culminate in cancer therapies and diagnostics. Any novel therapy might also become a product for a start up company which could create jobs on Long Island. “There are some fabulous scientists” at the university, he said. “A major goal of the Center for Biotechnology and Diane Fabel, its director, is to create small businesses here in New York. I’m trying to help them in that goal.”

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Scott Powers with his wife Diane at a recent Cancer Research Gala. Photo by Julie Skarratt

By Daniel Dunaief

He spent 20 years looking at the problem in one way. Now, he’s ready for a change and Stony Brook officials stand behind him. After working in genomics at several locations, including for a decade as director of human cancer genomics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to find therapeutic targets for human tumors, Scott Powers recently embraced the opportunity to find better ways to diagnose different types of cancer.

“A major driver for me coming to Stony Brook was to work on earlier detection,” Powers said.

Working with pathology department Chairman Ken Shroyer and Stony Brook obstetrician/gynecologist Michael Pearl, Powers is hoping to develop a prototype test for early detection of ovarian cancer so it can be removed by “simple surgery,” he said.

Powers has worked in numerous ways to isolate or identify mutations that might lead to cancer. That work focused on finding drug targets or developing therapies. One of the many challenges in studying genomics is that some mutations are bystanders, which means they likely don’t have a role in causing cancer or even, necessarily, in enabling cancer to spread. They make it harder to know whether they have a role or are merely different from the range of normal in a genetic sequence.

Some of the ways Powers has understood the potential part mutations play is by taking a computational approach, which can take many forms, including finding gene networks that are frequently altered. This approach has helped find various targets for therapies and improve the classification of tumors.

Powers said the “poster child” for success of this method was the development of the Oncotype DX test for breast cancer, which allows patients with node-negative, ER-positive breast cancer to determine whether they need to take chemotherapy.

He has also compared the gene sequences for similar cancer types across different species. He and Scott Lowe, who is now at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, found this approach could “help identify drivers and, in a sense, help filter out passengers,” he said. This has been successful on a basic science level but hasn’t yet led to the identification of a viable new therapeutic strategy, he said.

Powers’ focus now is to direct his expertise toward developing a test that might address early detection and, in some cases, improved diagnosis.

“It’s a brand new set of things for me to think about,” Powers said. The effort, he believes, should prove reinvigorating. The intellectual challenge of coming up with a solution that improves or enhances someone’s life motivates him.

Powers supports Stony Brook’s effort to add staff and develop a pool of researchers who can develop techniques and tools to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. “I am very hopeful for Stony Brook to build up an intellectually interesting environment that will attract a new generation of cancer scientists to come on board,” he said.

Powers believes cancer is a complex disease that has many different variations. “Many random events occur that sometimes give the cancer cell a competitive survival advantage,” he explained. “Everyone’s tumor has its own unique combination of 10 to 25 genetic alterations that are driving it.”

In addition to working with Shroyer on developing diagnostic tools for the genomics of cancer, Powers has turned his attention toward other researchers on the campus with different backgrounds. He is planning a collaboration with Sasha Levy, who works at the Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology and is an assistant professor of biochemistry and cell biology, to study cancer evolution. He said they’ll be using experimental methods Levy has developed on yeast.

Yusuf Hannun, the director of the Cancer Center, has recruited Powers to participate on the tumor board, which is where physicians from different areas come to discuss specific patients in a multidisciplinary fashion.

“There are numerous discussions and plans to expand upon this growing trend to use genetic testing in developing a personalized strategy for each patient,” Powers said.

Powers and his wife Diane, who works in fundraising with Patricia Wright at Stony Brook in the anthropology department, live in Greenlawn with their daughter Camille, who is a sophomore at Harborfields High School. Their other children are Alexander, 25, who works for a nonprofit in Brooklyn called the Social Science Research Council, and Douglas, 21, who is a junior studying applied math at Harvard.

Powers was looking for two things that he found when he came to Stony Brook: “the chance to develop diagnostic tests” and to “enter new fields by finding new collaborators with scientists doing interesting things.”

Geoffrey Girnun hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Photo from Girnun

By Daniel Dunaief

He hopes to use their addictions against them. By taking away what they depend on for survival, he would like to conquer a disease that ravages and, all too often, kills its victims.

Geoffrey Girnun, an associate professor in the pathology department and the director of cancer metabolomics at Stony Brook University, is looking closely at the addictions cancer has to certain pathways that normal cells do not. “It is really about starving the cancer,” he explained. “Perhaps what you feed the patient can starve the cancer.”

Cancer has a ramped-up metabolism that handles nutrients differently, Girnun explained. Differences between normal cells and cancer can provide scientists and doctors with opportunities to develop selective treatments.

Using mouse models, Girnun is exploring the role of different proteins that either promote or prevent various cancers. Recently, he has been studying one particular protein in the liver cell. This protein classically regulates the cell cycle, which is why finding it in the liver, which has non-dividing cells under normal conditions, was unusual.

Girnun discovered that it promotes how the liver produces sugar, in the form of glucose, to feed organs such as the brain under normal conditions. In diabetic mice, the protein goes back to its classic role as a cell cycle regulator.

“We’re using genetic and pharmaceutical mechanisms to dissect out whether increases in liver cancer associated with obesity in diabetics is dependent on this protein,” Girnun said. If he and other scientists can figure out how the protein that functions in one way can take on a different role, they might be able to stop that transformation.

“It’s like a linebacker becoming a quarterback,” Girnun said. He wants to figure out “how to turn it back” into a linebacker.

Girnun is exploring the metabolic pathways and signatures for liver cancer. If doctors are targeting one particular pathway, they might develop “personalized therapy that would help avoid treatments that wouldn’t be effective.”

Girnun’s peers and collaborators said he has contributed important research and insights in his laboratory.

Girnun is “considered a rising star, especially in the area of the downstream signaling events that modulate gluconeogenic gene expression,” explained Ronald Gartenhaus, a professor of medicine and co-leader of the Molecular and Structural Biology Program at the University of Maryland Cancer Center. Gartenhaus, who has known Girnun for seven years and collaborated with him, said metabolomics is “rapidly exploding with novel insights into the perturbed metabolism of cancer cells and how this information might be exploited for improved cancer therapeutics.”

What encouraged Girnun to consider the professional move to Stony Brook was the opportunity to create something larger. “I want to build a program in cancer metabolism,” he said. “I want to build something beyond my own lab.”

When he first spoke to the leadership at Stony Brook, including Ken Shroyer, the head of the pathology department, Yusuf Hannun, the director of the Cancer Center, and Lina Obeid, the dean of research at the School of Medicine, he felt as if he’d found a great match.

Girnun has been so busy working with other researchers that managing collaborations has become a part-time job, albeit one he finds productive and exciting.

Hannun said Girnun has identified “key investigators who are working on developing the field of nutrition and metabolomics.” Girnun is heading up a symposium on May 13th that focuses on innovations in basic and translational cancer metabolomics. The keynote speaker is Harvard Professor Pere Puigserver.

While Girnun changed jobs, he hasn’t moved his family yet from Baltimore. Every week, he commutes back and forth. Girnun and his wife Leah have five children, who range in age from preschool to high school. He hopes his family will move within the next year or so.

Girnun enjoys Stony Brook, where he said he has an office that overlooks the Long Island Sound and where he can run. When he’s hiking on Long Island, he said he has a chance to “think through my experiments.”

His commute from several states away shows “how much I was sold on Stony Brook,” he said. “We believe Stony Brook is moving up to the next level.”

He remains focused on the applications of his research toward people. “Something may be cool mechanistically, but, unless it’ll have a biologically meaningful result and affect how patients are treated or diagnosed, to me, it doesn’t matter,” he said.

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