Partners in lab coats and in life
SBU’s Hannun works to develop inhibitors for cancer
Yusuf Hannun is building a team where he firmly believes the whole has to be greater than the sum of the parts. The director of the Cancer Center at Stony Brook, Hannun is tackling the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a disease that is the second highest killer of Americans each year in a way that unites a wide range of expertise, some in relatively new and unexpected areas.
“A team of us is working to bring to the cancer center what may, for most people, look like previously poorly explored areas,” Hannun said, who has been conducting cancer research for over 30 years and became the director of the center at Stony Brook over two years ago.
That includes areas such as applied math and physics, computer science and artificial intelligence. Stony Brook is building a program in cancer metabolism and hopes to extend that to nutrition.
“We want to exploit every resource we can in our battles against cancer,” he said. “We’re building on Stony Brook’s strength in chemistry, drug biology, drug delivery, math and engineering.”
The modern study of cancer involves an analysis of reams of genetic information that is significantly larger than any one clinician can analyze and study, even on a single patient.
“One generates billions of points of data per patient,” Hannun said. “There is an immense need to probe these data sets, simplify them and extract what’s meaningful versus what’s noise” in studying mutations and genetic variants.
With all of the data available, scientists can explore multiple comparisons that might lead to a better understanding of the genetic underpinnings of cancer. They are moving toward an analysis of different types of cancer cells in any one patient, and they also will compare cancer cells in a patient to normal, healthy cells.
They are also heading toward understand the differences between patients with similar cancers, to see if there are genetic patterns that contribute to the onset of a particular type of cancer. When it strikes, cancer is a complex disease, Hannun said, which makes the “task of finding what’s real and what’s noise” challenging. “We have to do multiple analyses.” Each cancer includes a dozen different subtypes, if not more, and each one, he said, has to be treated and defeated differently.
Hannun dedicates a majority of his time working at the Cancer Center. He said he still “protects some parts of the week for lab work,” which includes the weekly Thursday meeting between his team and that of his wife, Lina Obeid, the dean of research at the Medical School.
In his lab, he has new targets for different cancers and is trying to develop inhibitors. He is working to understanding the mechanism by which enzymes regulate tumors.
At the Cancer Center, Hannun has distilled research into several major directions: cancer metabolism and lipids, experimental therapeutics and metastasis, informatics and imaging.
Hannun is focused on the interface between research and the clinical world, where the results of research at Stony Brook and other institutions will help drive clinical cancer medicine for the next few decades.
The Lebanon-born and educated Hannun has set a specific goal for the center as well. He’d like to receive a National Cancer Institute designation. Currently, that is given to only 60 cancer centers across the country.
That designation would not only be a recognition of success and achievement for the Long Island team, but would also enable them to bid for funding for special programs that only those centers can obtain.
The process to receive that designation is “very rigorous and extremely competitive and requires a significant breadth and depth of cancer research and a coordination of clinical research at any one center,” he said.
As a whole, cancer research probably gets about 10 percent of the resources needed to fight the disease, Hannun estimates.
Hannun said the center has hired about eight faculty members over the previous two years and hopes to add more.
The center has made some inroads with three or four promising new targets, he said.
When they can break free from their laboratory and administrative responsibilities, Hannun and Obeid, who live in Setauket, have enjoyed the move to Long Island, where they kayak and bicycle, visit the vineyards and head to the Hamptons.
As for working so closely with his wife, Hannun said, “We share not just family, but we share our professional life.” Their work often comes up when they’re outside the lab, which Obeid said offers another connection for two people whose social circles overlapped starting in high school.
“Sometimes, we say, ‘Let’s not talk about work.’ Inevitably, we come back to the excitement. It’s really unique if you’re able to share something you’re so excited about in your everyday life with your best friend.”