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Cancer research center opening at Stony Brook University

Dr. Yusuf Hannun and Dr. Lina Obeid are

Dr. Yusuf Hannun and Dr. Lina Obeid are co-directors of the new $13.75 million Kavita and Lalit Bahl Center for Metabolomics and Imaging at Stony Brook University Cancer Center, which will focus on innovative approaches to cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Photo Credit: John Griffin/SBU Communications

The Stony Brook University Cancer Center is opening a first-of-its-kind resource Thursday that doctors said will use imaging technology to probe the metabolic dynamics of tumors, allowing experts to pioneer approaches in cancer research, detection, treatment and prevention.

The Kavita and Lalit Bahl Center for Metabolomics and Imaging was made possible by a $13.75 million gift from its namesakes, who live in Setauket.

Lalit Bahl, a leading computer engineering expert who works for Renaissance Technologies in East Setauket, said in an interview that a deeply personal reason inspired him to seed the center’s development.

“My family over the last three generations has lost a very large number of people to cancer,” said Bahl, who is credited with the development of computer voice-recognition technology when he worked for IBM.

The new center will zero in on the strengths and creativity of the university’s researchers. Over the years, they have become international leaders in imaging and the emerging fields of sugar, fat and protein metabolism in tumors.

“We are really excited about this,” said Dr. Yusuf Hannun, director of the Stony Brook Cancer Center and vice dean for cancer medicine. “We have really good strengths in these areas, but with this gift we can really take it to a new level that will be transformative and unique.”

Hannun and Dr. Lina Obeid, dean for research at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, will serve as co-directors of the new center, which will have its formal opening Thursday during a ceremony at the cancer center.

“This is not only about understanding [metabolism] but imaging it and using very neat technology — MALDI imaging,” Obeid said.

MALDI is an acronym for matrix-assisted laser desorption ionization, a form of imaging that “basically allows us to look at slices of tissue — from a kidney, for example — to see what chemical metabolites are present,” said Obeid, the discoverer of an enzyme, sphingosine kinase I, and its role in cancer.

The Bahls gave an initial $3.5 million to the university two years ago. That money is earmarked for purchase of a cyclotron — an atom-smashing particle accelerator — that Hannun said will be used to produce novel tracer molecules for positron emission tomography, or PET scanning.

PET — which Stony Brook scientists decades ago helped develop — has emerged as a leading form of imaging to study the metabolism of sugar in cells.

The rest of the Bahls’ gift, more than $10 million, officially is being presented to the university Thursday.

In his family, Bahl said, cancer occurred predominantly among women: His grandmother, mother, sister and several aunts died of it, mostly malignancies of the breast and the colon.

“I have been very concerned — like a lot of other people — that we should do everything we can to eradicate cancer and develop therapies for people who get it so they can be cured. That’s mainly our motivation,” he said of himself and his wife.

Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, dean of the Stony Brook School of Medicine, said the center will help drive the field of metabolomics, an emerging discipline that explores how cancer cells manufacture and use energy.

“This center will allow us to address one of the oldest and newest frontiers in cancer research: metabolism and lipodomics,” Kaushansky said. “Metabolism refers to how the body or cell uses sugar or protein to make energy to live and grow. We all metabolize sugar and fat. That’s how we have the energy to get up everyday and move around.”

Kaushansky said the center plans to investigate the “Warburg effect,” the name given to the phenomenon of cancer patients’ metabolism being different from those without the disease. The effect has been known for 85 years but has evaded deeper understanding.

Otto Heinrich Warburg, the German Nobel laureate and physician who first made the observation in the 1930s, discovered that most cancer cells produce energy via a high rate of glycolysis — the breakdown of sugars in the body. Normal cells, by comparison, have a comparatively low rate of glycolysis.

“Gosh, we still don’t have an understanding for the basis of that,” Kaushansky said.

Hannun — an expert in lipidomics, the study of fat metabolism — sees the gift as opening doors for inquisitive cancer researchers.

“We will be able to recruit new faculty,” he said. “This is very significant for us and for our patients.”

Metabolomics 101

Metabolomics refers to the study of metabolites — substances present in cells and important in energy production. Sugar, fat and protein metabolism, even DNA synthesis, are part of the overall discipline.

The research opens a window on highly personalized care in key ways:

  • It is a new way to look at metabolic processes in individuals.
  • Certain metabolites may serve as targets for early cancer detection.
  • New targets for drugs can emerge in studies of cell metabolism.
  • It may reveal if a cancer treatment is working — or not working.
  • Metabolomic research may explain the Warburg effect — the high energy requirement typified by a high sugar breakdown rate in cancer cells.
  • The discipline involves experts in biochemistry, imaging, cancer treatment and bioinformatics, the use of computer technology to analyze data gleaned from genetic codes.
  • — Delthia Ricks

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