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Geoffrey Girnun hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Photo supplied by Geoffrey Girnun for a previous article

Federal prosecutors announced Jan. 14 that Geoffrey Girnun, 49, a former professor at Stony Brook University, has pled guilty to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in government funds from cancer-related research grants.

At federal court in Central Islip, Girnun, of Woodmere, pled guilty to stealing $225,000 in those grant funds. The ex-professor issued fraudulent invoices for research equipment to SBU from sham companies he created to conceal his theft of funds from cancer-related research grants issued by the National Institutes of Health and SBU. Prosecutors said this went to pay for things like Girnun’s mortgage.

Prosecutors said Girnun faces up to 10 years in prison as well as restitution, forfeiture and a fine, which are all to be determined by the judge at that time.

U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Richard Donaghue said the ex-professor is being held responsible.

“With today’s guilty plea, Girnun has been held accountable for his unconscionable scheme to embezzle for his personal use hundreds of thousands of dollars in government funds that were intended to help find a cure for cancer,” he said in a release.

The professor had been arrested in September last year and was charged in a seven-count indictment with theft of state and federal government funds, wire fraud and money laundering. 

Girnun was featured in a March 25, 2015, TBR News Media article. At the time, the researcher was exploring the role of different proteins that either promote or prevent various cancers. The one particular protein in the liver cell he was studying is one that classically regulates the cell cycle, according to the article.

Girnun discovered that the protein 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.

Girnun made the move to SBU from the University of Maryland in 2013 and said at the time he was inspired by 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.”

An attorney for Girnun did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

 

When the National Institutes of Health funds scientific research, the government is investing in hope. The people with the purse strings believe the scientists have the potential for progress, whether from a fundamental discovery or a breakthrough translational finding. Work in these labs may save and extend the lives of our fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers.

On Sept. 12, a cancer scientist at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University was charged with seven counts of stealing state and federal funds, wire fraud and money laundering when he allegedly funneled more than $200,000 of his research money into his own pockets, in part to pay his mortgage.

Taxpayers are a victim in this alleged fraud. Fellow scientists, who might have otherwise received the funds, are also greatly harmed, along with patients awaiting medical help and the support systems for all those patients. In other words, most of us — in one way or another — have been pickpocketed.

So, what’s supposed to happen now? If Geoffrey Girnun is guilty — due process will determine that and he has pleaded not guilty — he will face prison time, fines and other punishments. Girnun allegedly was self-dealing his grant money into shell companies. Perhaps the system where potential conflicts of interest exist needs a closer look, both from funding agencies and from the university.

It’s also crucial that SBU and the NIH pay especially close attention to this criminal case. They need to know all the details of this alleged fraud so they can monitor other scientists and make sure they close any gaps in the funding process. We, the taxpayers, need to be confident that the money the government invests goes toward the hunt for scientific discovery.

What shouldn’t happen? The NIH shouldn’t turn off the tap for scientists at SBU or elsewhere, or create unrealistic hurdles, to receive funding or reimbursement. As it is, many researchers spend considerable time applying for funds and, once they receive them, justifying every penny. Slowing that process down would make them less productive, hurting their research and cutting back on their benefits to the whole of humanity.

Scientific studies seek to understand cause and effect — actions and reactions. When doctors treat cancer patients, they try to balance between the need to eradicate cells with cancerous programming and the potential danger of collateral cellular damage to avoid wiping out healthy and productive cells. The treatment for this alleged fraud should do the same, trying to prevent other such corruption without shutting down valuable science.

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Geoffrey Girnun hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Photo supplied by Geoffrey Girnun for a previous article

An associate professor from Stony Brook University, who has been placed on administrative leave, is pleading not guilty to charges that he allegedly stole thousands from funds that were allocated for cancer research.

The United States Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of New York, announced Sept. 12 that Geoffrey Girnun, an associate professor at Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, had been arrested and indicted for stealing more than $200,000 in cancer research funds, allegedly using the stolen funds in part to pay his mortgage.

One of Girnun’s attorneys, Steven Metcalf II of Metcalf & Metcalf P.C. in Manhattan, said in an email statement that he is asking that the public does not rush to judgment.

“Mr. Girnun’s defense team, including attorney Steven Siegel and my firm, are still putting all the pieces together,” Metcalf wrote. “We will continue to challenge the validity of these charges and whether the facts are fundamentally flawed. Once all the smoke clears there will be a completely different picture of Mr. Girnun, who is a family man, a loving husband and a Harvard-educated professional entirely devoted to his family and work.”

SBU officials are shocked over the alleged actions.

“The university is outraged and appalled by the allegations that led to the arrest of Geoffrey Girnun today,” an official statement from the university read. “This alleged behavior is absolutely contrary to the ethical and professional standards expected of our faculty. The university has fully cooperated with the investigation and at this time is considered by the FBI as a victim in this matter.”

The professor was charged in a seven-count indictment with theft of state and federal government funds, wire fraud and money laundering. He allegedly submitted fraudulent invoices for research equipment to SBU from sham companies he created to conceal his theft of funds from cancer-related research grants issued by the National Institutes of Health and SBU.

“Professor Girnun’s alleged theft of federal and state grant funds earmarked for cancer research can be explained in two words: pure greed,” said U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue in a statement. “He will now be held to account in a federal courtroom.”

Scott Lampert, special-agent-in-charge from the U.S. inspector general’s office,was in attendance when the charges were announced.

“Taxpayers fund medical research with the hope that promising scientific breakthroughs will result in much-needed treatments and cures for patients,” Lampert said. “Because the money for medical research is limited and the need for scientific advances is great, it’s incredibly important to clamp down on those who would steal such grant money for personal gain.”

If convicted, Girnun faces up to 20 years imprisonment.

Girnun was featured in a March 25, 2015, TBR News Media article. At the time, the researcher was exploring the role of different proteins that either promote or prevent various cancers. The one particular protein in the liver cell he was studying is one that classically regulates the cell cycle, according to the article.

Girnun discovered that the protein 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.

Girnun made the move to SBU from the University of Maryland in 2013 and said at the time he was inspired by 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.”

At the time of the 2015 article, Girnun was temporarily commuting from Maryland. The statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office now lists him as a resident of Woodmere.

Girnun is scheduled to return to court Oct.4 after being released on $250,000 bond.

This article was updated Sept. 18 to add a statement from Girnun’s attorney.

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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Counterclockwise from front row left, John Haley, Geoffrey Girnun, Scott Powers and Patricia Thompson. Photo from Stony Brook University

When local teams bring in superstars, the typical sports fan salivates at the prospect of winning a national championship. At the player level, success often breeds success, as other stars and talented players are eager to join teams where they believe in the philosophy of management and the talent of their teammates.

With considerably less fanfare to the typical Suffolk County resident, Stony Brook University has lured some promising researchers from around the country to its growing pathology department. What’s more, the newest members of the team not only have big plans for themselves and their department — they want to help Long Islanders who are battling cancer.

Their research aims to give doctors tools to make a more informed cancer diagnosis, create jobs by developing start-up companies and contribute to the Cancer Center’s goal of receiving a National Cancer Institute designation, which would allow Stony Brook to bid on multimillion dollar grants.

“We are looking for new ways to advance the practice of pathology that will improve the quality of health care nationwide and worldwide,” said Ken Shroyer, the head of the pathology department.

When Shroyer arrived in 2007, he said his first goal was to bring together the talent that was already working at the university. Like siblings who grow apart after they leave home, the clinical research and basic research efforts were working in parallel, rather than together.

After finding common ground for those groups, Shroyer added staff on the clinical side. His next priority, he said, was to boost the research department, which had only one externally funded investigator. That number now stands at 12, with four of the new staff coming in the last 18 months.

The newest researchers joined the pathology department and became leaders in the Cancer Center. “Each of these four individuals has a national reputation and special expertise in a particular area of cancer research,” Shroyer explained, saying he combed the research landscape to find the right experts in their field.

For their part, the new staff share an enthusiasm for the department and a vision for where it’s heading. An expert in finding biomarkers that help identify patients at risk of cancer recurrence, Patricia Thompson plans to encourage basic scientists to make discoveries that affect patient care.

Geoffrey Girnun, meanwhile, continues to study how cancer’s metabolism works, hoping to find differences between cancer cells and normal cells that can become targets for intervention and therapy.

After two decades searching for therapeutic targets for cancer, Scott Powers shifted gears and is now looking for ways to detect cancer earlier.

John Haley is concentrating on exploring how cancer cells escape detection from the immune system and become metastatic.

The director of the Cancer Center, Yusuf Hannun said the partnership with the pathology department is “key to bridging basic research discoveries to cancer specific research and then to human applications,” which could include biomarker discoveries, new therapeutics and individualized and personalized genomic cancer research.

Hannun believes the Cancer Center will continue to push the envelope in diagnosis, treatment and prevention. “We want to bring more special and unique abilities in the war against cancer,” Hannun said. “The inroads in cancer are happening.”

Stony Brook could become involved in prevention, where doctors and scientists work with patients before they develop any signs of the disease. “That domain is clearly within the scope of the Cancer Center,” Hannun said. “We are working on novel biomarkers that could detect very early cancer.”

Hannun described Shroyer as his “alter ego” in the Cancer Center. “He is a very capable leader and does very exciting cutting edge research with a steeped history in early diagnostics.”

Shroyer focuses his work on the discovery of biomarkers that can be used to improve diagnostic accuracy, provide prognostic information and identify more effective treatments for cancer, he said.

Five years from now, the success of the effort will be reflected by the extent to which the group can enhance the national standing of Stony Brook Medicine and the Cancer Center as leading institutions in basic and translational cancer research, Shroyer said.