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Stony Brook University Cancer Center

Benjamin Martin. Photo by Jeanne Neville/Stony Brook Medicine

Benjamin Martin, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University, and member of the Stony Brook University Cancer Center, has received a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) to conduct research to understand the molecular and cell biology of neuromesodermal progenitors. The grant term, effective June 1, 2023, is five years.

The Martin Lab uses zebrafish embryos as a model system. The grant enables Martin and colleagues to carry out research designed to more clearly define and observe neuromesodermal progenitors, stem cells that contribute to spinal cord or skeletal muscle development. The overall goal of the lab is to advance an understanding of the vertebrate body plan via the zebrafish embryos and provide insights to understand stem cell biology and mechanisms of cancer metastasis.

This image captured by the Martin lab shows three different time points of a developing zebrafish to demonstrate how differentiated neurons and muscle expand as the embryos grow. The image shows the zebrafish reporter transgenes that label skeletal muscle (magenta color) and neurons (green color). Image from Benjamin martin

Martin and colleagues observe zebrafish to demonstrate how differentiated neurons and muscle expand as embryos grow. Neuromesodermal progenitors exist in all vertebrate embryos, so zebrafish are used as a common model to these cells’ development to better define how the embryonic body plan is formed and how spinal cord and skeletal muscle are induced from this population.

Martin’s NIGMS grant is called the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA), under the category of supporting established scientific investigators. This distinction recognizes the importance of the lab’s research, and reinforces their efforts to reach a breakthrough in this area of cell biology.

NIGMS supports fundamental studies that shed light on biological processes and catalyze advancements in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of diseases. It also leads efforts to train the next generation of scientists, promote diversity in the workforce, and expand research capacity nationwide.



Dave Wolmetz, second from left, and Keith Handler, second from right, owners of Urban Air, have pledged to raise $100,000 for research at Stony Brook Medicine. Dr. Huda Salman, left, and Dr. Theodore Gabig, right, join the business owners at a press conference Feb. 27. Photo from Stony Brook Medicine

While receiving treatment for leukemia, Dave Wolmetz distracted himself with plans to open an indoor adventure park, and now that business is allowing him to give back to the center that enabled him to carry on with his dream.

Wolmetz, of Commack, and his business partner and childhood friend, Keith Handler, have pledged to raise $100,000 for the Hematologic Malignancies and Stem Cell Transplant team at Stony Brook University Cancer Center over the course of five years. On Feb. 27, they presented doctors and nurses with the first installment of $20,000 at their Urban Air Lake Grove adventure park. The business opened in November 2019 and includes an indoor coaster, ropes course, indoor playground and more.

Dr. Huda Salman, director of both the Hematologic Malignancies Service and the CAR T Cellular Therapy Program, said Urban Air’s pledge will be a big help to the research program, which recently received approval for its first trial by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

At the Feb. 27 press conference, Wolmetz called the members of the medical team at Stony Brook “heroes.” The date of the installment presentation had a special meaning for him.

“My motivation was to recognize that I have a second opportunity around — second birthday today, Feb. 27, it’s the date of my stem cell transplant,” he said. “And this serves my purpose on the Earth at this point, to give back and create lives for cancer survivors.”

Wolmetz underwent total body irradiation and chemotherapy at the hospital after being diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia in 2018. His treatment at Stony Brook inspired him to start the nonprofit Why Not Us Foundation, with the hopes of raising funds for the chimeric antigen receptor T-cell research program at the cancer center. The program supports Stony Brook scientists who work on developing personalized cell therapy to treat blood cancers.

Wolmetz said patients spend a lot of time alone and planning Urban Air with Handler helped him get through some difficult times.

The business partners, who both graduated from Ward Melville High School in 1988, said they were tired of seeing so many people engaged in a digital world. It inspired them to create a place where children could get out and be physical, which plays into healthy habits.

“We talked about things over the years, but we never got serious until two years ago, and one thing led to another,” Handler said, adding the best reviews they get are when parents say they got their best night’s sleep because their children slept in after running around the indoor park.

Wolmetz and Handler said the decision to donate locally was an easy one for them. Wolmetz said it was excellent medical care, a positive attitude and faith that got him to a place where you could think of other things, including giving back to those going through the same experience that he had.

“We both agreed it was an important initiative that when we serve the community with our business to give a percentage and proceeds back to a meaningful campaign,” he said.

For an appointment with Stony Brook University Cancer Center, call 631-722-2623. For information about the CD4 CAR T-cell clinical trial, call 631-728-7425.

Lori Chan, standing, in the lab with doctoral student Jiabei He. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

It’s like a factory that makes bombs. Catching and removing the bombs is helpful, but it doesn’t end the battle because, even after many or almost all of the bombs are rounded up, the factory can continue to produce damaging products.

That’s the way triple-negative breast cancer operates. Chemotherapy can reduce active cancer cells, but it doesn’t stop the cancer stem cell from going back into the cancer-producing business, bringing the dreaded disease back to someone who was in remission.

Scientists who stop these cancer stem cells would be doing the equivalent of shutting down the factory, reducing the possible return of a virulent type of cancer.

Lori Chan, an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacological Sciences in the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, recently published research in Cell Death & Disease that demonstrated the role of a specific gene in the cancer stem cell pathway. Called USP2, this gene is overexpressed in 30 percent of all triple-negative breast cancers.

Inhibiting this gene reduced the production of the tumor in a mouse model of the disease.

Chan’s results “suggest a very important role [of this gene] in cancer stem cells,” Yusuf Hannun, the director of the Stony Brook University Cancer Center, explained in an email.

Lori Chan with her dog KoKo. Photo by Joshua Lee

Chan used a genetic and a pharmacological approach to inhibit USP2 and found that both ways shrink the cancer stem cell population. She used RNA interference to silence the gene and the protein expression, and she also used a USP2-specific small molecular inhibitor to block the activity of the USP2 protein.

With the knowledge that the cancer stem cell factory population needs this USP2 gene, Chan inhibited the gene while providing doxurubicin, which is a chemotherapy treatment. The combination of treatments suppressed the tumor growth by 50 percent.

She suggested that the USP2 gene can serve as a biomarker for the lymph metastasis of triple-negative breast cancer. She doesn’t know if it could be used as a biomarker in predicting a response to chemotherapy. Patients with a high expression of this gene may not respond as well to standard treatment.

“If a doctor knows that a patient probably wouldn’t respond well to chemotherapy, the doctor may want to reconsider whether you want to put your patient in a cycle for chemotherapy, which always causes side effects,” Chan said.

While this finding is an encouraging sign and may allow doctors to use this gene to determine the best treatment, the potential clinical benefit of this discovery could still be a long way off, as any potential clinical approach would require careful testing to understand the consequences of a new therapy.

“This is the beginning of a long process to get to clinical trials and clinical use,” Hannun wrote. Indeed, researchers would need to understand whether any treatment caused side effects to the heart, liver and other organs, Chan added. 

In the future, doctors at a clinical cancer center might perform a genomic diagnostic, to know exactly what type of cancer an individual has. Reducing the cancer stem cell population can be critically important in leading to a favorable clinical outcome.

A few hundred cancer cells can give rise to millions of cancer cells. “I want to let chemotherapy do its job in killing cancer cells and let [cancer stem cell] targeted agents, such as USP2 inhibitors, prevent the tumor recurrence,” Chan said. 

She urges members of the community to screen for cancer routinely. A patient diagnosed in stage 1 has a five-year survival rate of well over 90 percent, while that rate plummets to 15 to 20 percent for patients diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

The next step in Chan’s research is to look for ways to refine the inhibitor to make it more of a drug and less of a compound. She is also interested in exploring whether USP2 can be involved in other cancers, such as lung and prostate, and would be happy to collaborate with other scientists who focus on these types of cancers.

For Chan, the moment of recognition of the value of studying this gene in this form of breast cancer came when she compared the currently used drug with and without the inhibitor compound. With the inhibitor, the drug becomes much more effective.

A resident of Stony Brook, Chan lives with her husband, Joshua Lee, who is working in the same lab. The couple, who have a 1½-year-old rescue dog from Korea named KoKo, met when they were in graduate school.

Concerned about snow, which she hadn’t experienced when she was growing up in Taiwan, Chan started her tenure at Stony Brook five years ago on April 1, on the same day a snowstorm blanketed the area. “It was a very challenging first day,” she recalled. She now appreciates snow and enjoys the seasonal variety on Long Island.

Chan decided to pursue a career in cancer research after she volunteered at a children’s cancer hospital in Taiwan. She saw how desperate the parents and the siblings of the patient were. In her role as a volunteer, she played with the patients and with their siblings, some of whom she felt didn’t receive as much attention from parents who were worried about their sick siblings.

“This kind of disease doesn’t just take away one person’s life,” Chan said. “It destroys the whole family.” When she went to graduate school, she wanted to know everything she could about how cancer works.

Some day Chan hopes she can be a part of a process that helps doctors find an array of inhibitors that are effective in treating patients whose cancers involve the overexpression of different genes. “It would be a privilege to participate in this process,” she said.

Stony Brook University representatives and legislators joined Jim and Marilyn Simons, holding scissors, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at SBU Nov. 1. Photo from Stony Brook University

Stony Brook University is stepping into the future when it comes to cancer research and patient care.

“Imagine what we will accomplish once this building is filled with the pre-eminent doctors and scientists from across campus, the state and the globe.”

— Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Nov. 1 to commemorate the completion of construction of the Medical and Research Translation building, where Stony Brook University Cancer Center will be the primary occupant. The eight-level, 240,000-square-foot facility features expanded state-of-the-art space that will be used by clinicians and researchers to discover new cancer treatments, educate students, create more space for patients and family, and more. The building is slated to be opened to patients in January.

At a presentation after the ceremony, SBU President Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. said the MART is the result of public and private funds and donations. Support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), the State University of New York and Empire State Development led to a $35 million NYSUNY 2020 challenge grant. Also, $50 million from a $150 million gift from Jim Simons, founder of Renaissance Technologies, and his wife Marilyn, and $53 million in funds secured by state Sens. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) added to donations from supporters.

The university president said the MART will bring together national and international experts in various fields including applied mathematics, imaging, chemistry, biology and computer science.

“Imagine what we will accomplish once this building is filled with the preeminent doctors and scientists from across campus, the state and the globe,” Stanley said.

Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, senior vice president of health sciences and dean of the school of medicine, said the idea of the facility was conceived eight days after his arrival at Stony Brook nine years ago. He said it was envisioned as a catalyst for highly advanced cancer research and a facility to provide outstanding clinical care to patients.

“Because cancer researchers, educators and clinicians would occupy the same building and wait in the same lines for coffee, juice and food, what I’d like to term productive collisions would be inevitable, allowing the MART to serve as an incubator with the very best people to produce and then practice the very best ideas in medicine,” he said.

“With expanded space for patients and families, the MART offers a convenient access to Stony Brook Cancer’s experts, all of them in one location, whether you’re four years old or 84 years old.”

— Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky

Kaushansky said the building is more than medical professionals coming together and brainstorming.

“With expanded space for patients and families, the MART offers a convenient access to Stony Brook Cancer’s experts, all of them in one location, whether you’re 4 years old or 84 years old,” Kaushansky said.

The dean said since 2012 Dr. Yusuf Hannun, director of SBU Cancer Center, has assembled a dream team of researchers, physicians, staff members and educators dedicated to finding cures and compassionate care for SBU patients.

Hannun said the plan was to build a comprehensive cancer center on Long Island that conducts cutting-edge research to understand cancer and then design approaches to predict, diagnose, prevent and defeat cancer.

“The broad scope of activities that we conduct — research, education, clinical trials, prevention, patient care, survivorship and many others — is only possible in a setting of an academic medical center that can support this depth and breadth of activity,” he said.

SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson, who battled Hodgkin’s disease nearly 40 years ago, attended the event. As a cancer survivor, Johnson said she was happy to be at the ribbon cutting and wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for professionals that developed the treatment she had to undergo.

“I can’t wait to see what innovations are going to come out for the care and treatment of patients to come from the comprehensive team of cross-disciplinary researchers empowered by MART, and how this facility will change the way we educate physician-scientists here at Stony Brook University,” Johnson said.

By Yusuf A. Hannun, M.D.

Dr. Yusuf Hannun

Recently the New York State Department of Health (DOH) reported elevated levels of leukemia, bladder cancer, thyroid cancer and lung cancer in three central Long Island communities — Farmingville, Selden and Centereach. 

As Suffolk County’s only academic-based cancer research facility, Stony Brook University Cancer Center has researchers working with DOH scientists to interpret the data and look at possible causes of these high incidence rates.

More information and analysis are needed

The state’s reports raise important questions about possible reasons, what the results mean and what can be done to change them. First, we need to determine which subtypes of the four cancers are responsible for these higher incidence rates. Each type of cancer can be divided into subtypes, based on certain characteristics of the cancer cells, and these subtypes may have distinct causes and risk factors. It’s important to know the subtype of a cancer to identify the possible causes.

Also, it is important to know whether mortality rates from these cancers are higher in the three Long Island communities than they are in the rest of the state. This information is critical because sometimes increases in incidence rates are due to improved diagnosis and detection. We must determine if the data in the DOH study truly are the results of higher incidences, which can be assessed by determining whether the higher incidence rates have translated into higher mortality rates. 

Findings for Farmingville, Centereach and Selden

Bladder cancer, lung cancer, thyroid cancer and leukemia were diagnosed at statistically significant elevated levels in Farmingville, Centereach and Selden, according to the DOH data. The cancer incidences were identified with information from the New York State Cancer Registry.

The registry collects reports on cancer diagnoses from health care providers, which include the sites of tumors, the stages when diagnosed, the cell types of the cancer, treatment information and demographic information. Every person diagnosed with cancer in New York state is reported to the registry. The incidences also were identified from statistical mapping of neighborhoods in the three communities. 

We learned that, from 2011 to 2015, the following number of cases occurred:

• 311 cases of lung cancer, 56 percent above statewide rate

• 112 cases of bladder cancer, 50 percent above statewide rate

• 98 cases of thyroid cancer, 43 percent above statewide rate

• 87 cases of leukemia, 64 percent above statewide rate

Cancer research

With all the resources of an academic medical center, the Stony Brook Cancer Center will move quickly to examine the findings from this study.

Transforming cancer care is the driving force behind the construction of our new cancer center, which will be located in the 240,000-square-foot, eight-story Medical Research and Translation (MART) building opening in November. It is where researchers will revolutionize breakthrough medical discoveries and create lifesaving treatments to deliver the future of cancer care today.

For more information on the DOH study, or the Stony Brook Cancer Center, call us at 631-638-1000 or visit www.cancer.stonybrookmedicine.edu.

Dr. Yusuf A. Hannun is the director of the Stony Brook University Cancer Center and vice dean for cancer medicine.

CHECK PRESENTATION: From left, Dr. Lina Obeid, Leg. Kara Hahn, Dr. Yusuf A. Hannun, Gloria Rocchio, Dr. Scott Powers, Carol Simco and Dr. Jun Lin. Photo from WMHO

On March 27, Stony Brook University’s Cancer Center received a donation of $40,000 from the Ward Melville Heritage Organization (WMHO), which were funds raised from WMHO’s 23rd Annual Walk for Beauty and Hercules Run held on Oct. 23 of last year in historic Stony Brook Village.

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and co-chair, Walk for Beauty; Gloria Rocchio, president, Ward Melville Heritage Organization and co-chair, Walk for Beauty; and Carol Simco, co-chair, Walk for Beauty, officially presented the check to Dr. Yusuf A. Hannun, director, Stony Brook Cancer Center, and vice dean, Cancer Medicine. Joining them were Dr. Jun Lin and Dr. Scott Powers, cancer researchers whose projects received funds raised from the 2015 Walk for Beauty, and Dr. Lina Obeid, dean for research, Stony Brook University School of Medicine.

Also present, but not shown, were Councilwoman Valerie M. Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station), WMHO Trustee Anna Kerekes and Walk for Beauty committee members. Since its inception in 1994, Walk for Beauty has raised over $1.365 million toward breast cancer research. Funds raised also help to supply items such as wigs and prostheses for SBU Cancer Center patients. The event is an all-volunteer initiative with no administrative costs.

Registration is now open for the 2017 Walk for Beauty, which will take place on Sunday, Oct. 22. Visit www.wmho.org/wfb for more information.

The Dec. 1, 2016 Ribbon cutting for the The Kavita and Lalit Bahl Center for Metabolomics and Imaging. From left to right: Dr. Lina Obeid, Dr. Yusuf Hannun, Lalit Bahl, Kavita Bahl, President Samuel L. Stanley and Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky.

By Yusuf Hannun, M.D.

Dr. Yusuf Hannun
Dr. Yusuf Hannun

Propelled by the vision and support of Kavita and Lalit Bahl of Setauket and their two generous gifts totaling $13.75 million, this month the Stony Brook University Cancer Center unveiled The Kavita and Lalit Bahl Center for Metabolomics and Imaging.

For all of us at the Cancer Center, we believe this combined gift will have a decades-long impact on advancing cancer research, individualized medical treatments and patient care, with potentially dramatic advantages for families on Long Island and beyond.

A state-of-the-art facility, the Bahl Center capitalizes on Stony Brook University’s strengths in three major areas: research, treatment and imaging. At the research level, many university departments, including engineering, informatics, applied math, physics and chemistry, will be instrumental in synthesizing data and collaborating on studies. In the clinical care arena, the Cancer Center’s physician experts will be a vital resource in developing prevention, diagnostic and treatment protocols from the new discoveries. Our medical imaging researchers will provide innovative approaches in using the technology and insight into the imaging studies.

Our ultimate goal is to transform precision-based cancer care by enabling scientists and physicians at our Cancer Center to learn more about the characteristics and behavior of each patient’s specific cancer. The center concentrates on the field of metabolomics, one of the most promising approaches to individualized cancer treatment. Metabolomics explores how cancer cells manufacture and use energy, allowing the disease to start, grow and spread, as well as how different types of cancer respond to different treatments. At its core, the Bahl Center is a translational research program that is uniquely positioned to drive innovative cancer research to the next level of discovery:

Cutting-edge Technology. The gift allows us to purchase a cyclotron, which is a particle accelerator that creates tracer molecules. The tracer molecules bind to cancer cells and can be viewed during a positron emission tomography (PET) scan.

Advanced Imaging. We will have two new PET scanners in close proximity to the cyclotron. By using the tracer molecules, our researchers will be able to develop novel applications of PET scans to image multiple aspects of cancers. This will provide new information about how cancer develops, how it can be detected with more precision and how therapy can be tailored and monitored.

Robust Research Program. We are fortunate to have widely respected researchers in the fields of lipids and metabolomics, cancer biology, medical imaging and computational oncology already here at Stony Brook. With this gift, we will be able to recruit key experts in areas that complement our strengths to drive the center to new levels of excellence.

The knowledge we gain will help revolutionize precision-based cancer diagnosis and care. It will lead to earlier detection, new treatment targets and improved monitoring of treatment response, as well as a better understanding of how to prevent cancer from developing in the first place.

For Long Island residents, the Bahl Center’s location at Stony Brook University Cancer Center means that patients will have the benefit of being treated by professionals who are on the forefront of transformative cancer discoveries.

The Kavita and Lalit Bahl Center for Metabolomics and Imaging research program was officially opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Dec. 1. We’re currently working in Stony Brook University School of Medicine laboratories but will relocate to dedicated facilities in our new Medical and Research Translation (MART) building when it opens in 2018. To learn more, please visit www.cancer.stonybrookmedicine.edu.

Dr. Yusuf Hannun is the director of the Stony Brook University Cancer Center, vice dean for cancer medicine and Joel Strum Kenny Professor in Cancer Research.