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The Kavita and Lalit Bahl Center for Metabolomics

Photo from Stony Brook Medicine

By Samuel L. Stanley, Jr.

Samuel L. Stanley Jr.

In recognition of his dedication to the cancer fight, Stony Brook University proudly honored the 47th Vice President of the United States Joseph R. Biden Jr. at the Stars of Stony Brook Gala — our annual fundraising event — on Wednesday, April 19.

Hosted by the Stony Brook Foundation, the gala generates funds for student financial aid and a select academic area of excellence. This year, the university raised $6,946,000 in gifts and pledges, including $2,051,000 for scholarships and $4,895,000 to support the Stony Brook University Cancer Center. Since 2000, the event has raised more than $50 million.

As vice president, Joe Biden led the White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force. Its mission: to double the rate of progress in preventing the disease that leads to more than 8 million deaths worldwide every year. The intention, said Biden in his remarks, was to infuse the cancer research culture with “the urgency of now.”

At Stony Brook, we share Joe Biden’s determination, sense of urgency and his fundamental confidence in our ability to make a difference in the fight against cancer. The Stony Brook Cancer Center brings together the brightest minds, enhancing purposeful collaboration, and creating strategic partnerships to share information and accelerate research.

Our researchers are receiving worldwide attention for a pioneering study of the genesis and behavior of cancer cells at the molecular level with the goal of one day helping to detect, treat and eventually eliminate the disease for good.

Through continual research and discovery, Stony Brook Cancer Center is on the forefront of cancer care. In the new Kavita and Lalit Bahl Center for Metabolomics and Imaging, for instance, Dr. Yusuf Hannun and Dr. Lina Obeid are receiving international recognition for their pioneering studies in the relationship between cancer and lipids, naturally occurring molecules in the body such as fats. Their work is changing what is known about the role lipids play in cancer and brings us closer to understanding how to prevent and treat the disease.

Next year, the Stony Brook Cancer Center will relocate from its current location on the Stony Brook Medicine campus to the new 254,000-square-foot Medical and Research Translation (MART) building, designed to enable scientists and physicians to work side by side to advance cancer research and imaging diagnostics.

We’re thrilled that for one big night, we shined a white-hot light on the cancer issue and worked to raise awareness and money that will no doubt play a continuing role in bringing an end to this disease.

Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. is president of Stony Brook University.

Honoree US Vice President Joe Biden (center) stands with Samuel L. Stanley Jr., President, Stony Brook University, Former and James H. Simons, Chair Emeritus, Stony Brook Fountation and IMAX CEO Richard L. Gelfond during the 2017 Stars of Stony Brook Gala at Chelsea Piers April 19, 2017, in New York, NY. (Mark Von Holden/AP Images for Stony Brook University)

Stony Brook University recognized the 47th vice president of the United States of America, the Honorable Joseph R. Biden Jr., at its 18th annual Stars of Stony Brook Gala on April 19 at Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers in New York City. The former vice president was recognized for his outstanding career and dedication to the fight against cancer.

“Cancer touches us all in some way and at some point,” said Biden. “Everywhere I go, people share their stories of heartbreak and hope. And every day, I’m reminded that our work to end cancer as we know it is bigger than just a single person. It carries the hopes and dreams of millions of people who are praying that we succeed, praying for hope, praying for time — not someday, but now.”

As vice president, Biden led the White House Cancer Moonshot, with the mission to double the rate of progress in preventing and fighting the disease. Under his leadership, the White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force catalyzed novel, innovative and impactful collaborations among 20 government agencies, departments and White House offices and over 70 private sector collaborations designed to achieve a decades’ worth of progress in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer in just five years.

In addition, Biden helped lead the effort to pass the 21st Century Cures Act that provides $1.8 billion over seven years for the Cancer Moonshot’s scientific priorities.

“We are privileged to have the opportunity to honor former Vice President Biden,” said Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley. “The Cancer Moonshot has the potential to transform cancer research and prevention around the world. This critical initiative is a reflection of the work our researchers and doctors are doing in Stony Brook Cancer Center labs — using insight, innovation and strategic collaborations to push the boundaries of what we know about how best to diagnose, treat and ultimately prevent the disease that is responsible for more than 8 million deaths a year worldwide.”

Research and discovery are at the heart of the Stony Brook ethos and the university’s Cancer Center is a shining example of its commitment to combating the malady. Stony Brook doctors are on the forefront of the next generation in cancer care.

The Cancer Center will relocate next year to the new 254,000 square-foot Medical and Research Translation facility (MART), which was designed to enable scientists and physicians to work side by side to advance cancer research and imaging diagnostic and will be the home to the new Bahl Center for Metabolomics and Imaging. Stony Brook researchers are receiving worldwide attention for their pioneering research into the genesis and behavior of cancer cells at the molecular level, which will one day help detect, treat, and eliminate the disease altogether.

Every spring the Stony Brook Foundation hosts the Stars of Stony Brook Gala to benefit student scholarships and a select academic program. Since its inception in 2000, the event has raised more than $42 million. A portion of the net proceeds from this year’s gala will support the Stony Brook Cancer Center.

Biden joins a distinguished roster of scholars, politicians, celebrities and luminaries who have been honored by the gala for their outstanding and relentless commitment to society, including Nobel Laureate CN Yang; actors Julie Andrews, Alan Alda and Ed Harris; founder of Renaissance Technologies Jim Simons; CA Technologies founder Charles Wang; and world-renowned conservationists Richard Leakey and Patricia Wright.

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.”

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.