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Dr. Lina Obeid

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File photo from Stony Brook University

An award-winning scientist, grandmother, aunt, mother and wife, Dr. Lina Obeid, died Nov. 29 at the age of 64 after a recurrence of lung cancer.

Lina Obeid spending time with her granddaughter Evelyn. Photo by Marya Hannun

Born in New York and raised in Lebanon, Obeid was a State University of New York distinguished professor of medicine and the dean of research at Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, where she conducted research on cancer and aging. In 2015, she was named as one of The Village Times Herald’s People of the Year along with her husband Dr. Yusuf Hannun.

A Celebration of Life memorial service for Obeid will take place Dec. 7 at Flowerfield in St. James from 11 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. and will include remarks and a reception. Attendees are encouraged to wear bright colors.

SBU faculty appreciated Obeid’s scientific, administrative and mentoring contributions, as well as her engaging style.

Michael Bernstein, interim president of SBU, said Obeid was “very well liked and respected” and that her loss leaves a “big hole” at the university.

Obeid “oversaw our research programs, specifically the core facilities on which all our laboratory scientists depend, for sample analysis, for microscopy of cells” among other areas, Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, dean of Renaissance School of Medicine wrote in an email.

He lauded Obeid’s personable approach, which he said, “rubbed off on many people,” creating a “renewed sense of optimism in our ability to impact all three missions: research, teaching and clinical care.”

Obeid and Hannun, who is the director of the Stony Brook Cancer Center, knew each other in high school, started dating in medical school and were married for 36 years. The couple recently shared a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 16th International Conference on Bioactive Lipids in Cancer, Inflammation and Related Diseases in October. The award represents the first time a woman received this honor.

Supriya Jayadev, who was a graduate student in Hannun’s lab at Duke University and is the executive director of Clallam Mosaic in Port Angeles, Washington, called Obeid a “role model” for women in science. “Not only was she a strong leader with the ability to compete in a male-dominated field, but she retained her femininity and grace.”

Daniel Raben, a professor of biological chemistry at Johns Hopkins Medicine, has known Obeid and Hannun for more than two decades.

“She had a huge impact on the sphingolipid field because of the contribution she made,” Raben said. “It’s a huge loss. She was a giant.”

Dr. Maurizio Del Poeta, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at SBU, knew Obeid since 1995.

“I once asked her if she had any advice for my grants to get funded,” he recalled in an email. Obeid suggested she didn’t know how to get funded, but that his work wouldn’t get funded if he didn’t submit proposals.

She “never took ‘no’ for an answer. She would insist and insist and insist again until she [would] persuade you and get a ‘yes,’” he added.

Del Poeta said Obeid did a “marvelous” job enhancing research facilities, while she was a “caring physician” for veterans at the Northport VA Medical Center.

Obeid and Hannun were co-directors of a National Institutes of Health program in Cancer Biology and Therapeutics, which this year received a grant renewal for another five years.

Obeid’s daughter Marya Hannun recalled her mother as “warm, honest, and funny” without being cynical. Marya said her mother cared about everyone around her and was rooting for them to succeed.

“During my childhood, she taught me that nothing was impossible if you are determined and gutsy.”

— Mayra Hannun

“During my childhood, she taught me that nothing was impossible if you are determined and gutsy,” Marya Hannun wrote in an email.

She suggested her mother was passionate about food, which shaped how they lived and traveled. When the family visited Greece, Obeid swam out for sea urchins, cracked them on rocks and ate them on the beach. She was a passionate cook who learned from her mother, Rosette, who wrote a Palestinian cookbook.

The Hannun family laughs “about how we plan out holidays around food and spend
our meals talking about the next meals,” Marya wrote.

Obeid was part of one of the first class of women admitted into the International College High School. She earned her bachelor of arts at Rutgers University, but was also creative as a child and interested in fashion and design.

“Anyone who [saw] her wouldn’t be surprised,” Marya said.

Obeid is survived by her husband, her parents, Rosette and Sami, her nieces and nephews, her triplet children and her two grandchildren.

Obeid and Hannun’s daughter Reem is married to Dr. Khaled Moussawi and lives in Baltimore. Awni and his wife Kathy Hannun have two children, Evelyn and Yusuf, and live in New York City.

Binks Wattenberg, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Virginia Commonwealth University, believes that “people like [Obeid] only come along a few times in one’s lifetime.”

In an email, he recalled how she had a
“way of looking into your eyes and persuading you to do an experiment that she thought absolutely had to be done.” He appreciated her enthusiasm, which made Wattenberg feel as if he was doing “absolutely
essential work.”

Obeid regularly invited her researchers for meals at her house, where they felt as if they also joined the family, said Dr. Gerard Blobe, a professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine who earned his doctorate in Yusuf Hannun’s lab over 20 years ago.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked for donations in Obeid’s name to the Stony Brook University Cancer Center. Potential donors can access the site at cancer.stonybrookmedicine.edu/giving.

At the ribbon cutting of the Kavita and Lalit Bahl Center for Metabolomics and Imaging last December, from left, Lina Obeid; Yusuf Hannun; Kavita and Lalit Bahl; Samuel Stanley, President of Stony Brook University; and Kenneth Kaushansky, dean of Stony Brook University’s School of Medicine. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Many ways to kill cancer involve tapping into a cell’s own termination system. With several cancers, however, the treatment only works until it becomes resistant to the therapy, bringing back a life-threatening disease.

Collaborating with researchers at several other institutions, Dr. Lina Obeid, the director of research at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, has uncovered a way that cancer hides a cell-destroying lipid called ceramide from treatments. The ceramide “gets co-opted by fatty acids for a different species of fats, namely acylceramide, and gets stored side by side with the usual triglycerides,” Obeid explained in an email about her recent finding, which was published in the journal Cell Metabolism. “It makes the ceramide inaccessible and hence the novelty.” The ceramide gets stored as a lipid drop in the cell.

“We describe a completely new metabolic pathway and role in cell biology,” Obeid said. Other researchers suggested that this finding could be important in the battle against cancer. “That acylceramides are formed and deposited in lipid droplets is an amazing finding,” George Carman, the director of the Rutgers Center for Lipid Research, explained in an email. “By modifying the ceramide molecule with an acyl group for its deposit in a lipid droplet takes ceramide out of action and, thus, ineffective as an agent to cause death of cancer cells.”

Carman said Obeid, whom he has known for several years, visited his campus in New Jersey to share her results. “All of us at Rutgers were so excited to hear her story because we knew how important this discovery is to the field of lipid droplet biology as well as to cancer biology,” he said. Obeid conducted some of the work at the Kavita and Lalit Bahl Center for Metabolomics and Imaging at Stony Brook University. The center officially opened on Dec. 1 of last year on the 15th floor of the Health Sciences Center and will move to the Medical and Research Translation Building when it is completed next year. “This study is exactly the kind of major questions we are addressing in the center that [the Bahls] have generously made possible,” she explained.

Obeid discovered three proteins that are involved in this metabolic pathway: a ceramide synthesizing protein called CerS, a fatty acyl-CoA synthetase protein called ACSL and an enzyme that puts them together, called DGAT2, which is also used in fatty triglyceride synthesis. Her research team, which includes scientists from Columbia University, Northrop Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Mansoura University in Egypt is looking into implications for the role of this novel pathway as a target for cancer and obesity.

Indeed, obesity enables more frequent conversion of ceramide into acylceramide. “Fats in cells and in diets increase and predispose to obesity,” Obeid suggested. “This new pathway we found occurs when fatty acids are fed to cells or as high-fat diets are fed to mice.” In theory, this could explain why obesity may predispose people to cancer or make cancer resistance more prevalent for some people. According to Obeid, a high-fat diet can cause this collection of proteins to form in the liver of mice, and she would like to explore the same pathways in humans. Before she can begin any such studies, however, she would need numerous approvals from institutional review boards, among others.

Obeid and her collaborators hypothesize that a lower-fat diet could reduce the likelihood that this lipid would be able to evade cancer therapies.

These kinds of studies “provide the justification for looking at the effect of diet on acylceramide production,” Daniel Raben, a professor of biological chemistry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, explained in an email. Further research could include “isocaloric studies with [high-fat diets] and [low-fat diets] in animals that are age and gender matched.”

Obeid was a part of the first group to describe the lipid’s role in cancer cell death in 1993. “We have been studying its metabolism and looking at how it’s made and broken down,” she said. “We found recently that it associates with these proteins to metabolize it.”

While the lipid provides a way to tackle cancer’s resistance to chemotherapy, it also has other functions in cells, including as a membrane permeability barrier and in skin. A therapy that reduced acylceramide could affect these other areas but “as with hair loss [with chemotherapy treatment], this will likely be easily managed and reversible,” Raben explained.

Obeid and Yusuf Hannun, the director of the Cancer Center at Stony Brook, are searching for other scientists to work at the Kavita and Lalit Bahl Center for Metabolomics and Imaging. “We are actively recruiting for star scientists” at the center, Obeid said. Other researchers suggested that the history of the work Obeid and Hannun have done will attract other researchers.

Hannun and Obeid are “considered the absolute leaders in the area of sphingolipid biochemistry and their clinical implications,” Raben said. “Simply put, they are at the top of this academic pile. Not only are they terrific scientists, they also have an outstanding and well-recognized reputation for training and nurturing young investigators.” Carman asked, “Who wouldn’t want to be associated with a group that continues to make seminal contributions to cancer biology and make an impact on the lives of so many?”

As for the next steps in this particular effort, Carman foresaw some ways to extend this work into the clinical arena. “I can imagine the discovery of a drug that might be used to combat cancer growth,” Carman said. “I can imagine the discovery of a drug that might control the acylation of ceramide to make ceramide more available as a cancer cell inhibitor. Clearly, [Obeid’s] group, along with the outstanding colleagues and facilities at Stony Brook, are positioned to make such discoveries.”