Conversations with Lipid Leaders: Dr. Yusuf Hannun

Posted on August 06, 2021

Yufuf Hannun

Tell us a little bit about yourself (current role, background, family, etc.)

I am currently the director of the Stony Brook Cancer Center and Distinguished University Professor. I was born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian parents and grew up in Lebanon, where I had my education through medical school. I lost my wife and collaborator, Lina Obeid, in November 2019. We have triplets, and now we have 4 grandchildren.

I came to the US In 1983 to do a fellowship in clinical hematology and medical oncology at Duke University. I also started a post doctoral fellowship in Biochemistry at Duke working with Robert Bell.

What do you consider the largest breakthrough in lipid research in recent years?

I can not pinpoint one breakthrough; however, I offer several breakthroughs that can be grouped into two major categories:

Technical. There have amazing advancements, e.g. in mass spectroscopy, MALDI imaging, chemical biology (e.g click chemistry), solving structures of several enzymes and targets of bioactive lipids, more mechanistic insights, etc.

Conceptual. The complexities of lipid metabolism are unrivaled in other areas of biochemistry, with thousands of distinct molecular species, intricate and interconnected metabolic pathways, and highly regulated enzymes. Add to this the compartmentalization of lipid metabolism and function. The breadth of functions of bioactive lipids is breath taking. I had proposed previously that one cannot find a major cell biologic pathway or function that does not involve lipids.

Did you always envision yourself becoming a scientist? If not, what did you want to be when you grew up? Who influenced you to become a scientist?

Not initially. Growing up I thought I would turn into either a mathematician or a physician. I tried my hands in research during medical school, and that peaked my interest but did not sufficiently sway me. When I started my sub-specialty training (in Medical Oncology), I realized that this field of medicine was in the dark ages and needed major breakthroughs. So I decided to get involved in research. During my fellowship at Duke, I was exposed to the work of Jim Neidel who had just identified protein kinase C (PKC) as the long-sought after receptor for phorbol esters. I started working on PKC. Nishizuka in Kobe Japan showed that diacylglycerols may directly activate PKC. So we started discussions with Bob Bell who was studying metabolism of diacylglcyerol, and was making significant headways on these biochemical pathways. We decided to see if Nishizuka was right or not. He was. That got me hooked on bioactive lipids. Those were the very early days of this field, rife with possibilities. Work on PKC led me to sphingosine which in turn led me to probe sphingolipid metabolism and biology.

Initially, my lab was moving much more into basic biochemistry (which is beautiful in its own right). So my lab was getting into yeast, and this helped identify several key enzymes of sphingolipid metabolism and also provided a model organism for dissecting sphingolipid biology.

What lead you to target lipid signaling mechanisms and networks as a means of targeting therapeutics for cancer and other disorders?

As we started gaining traction on bioactive lipids at a basic level, the group focused on understanding how these pathways are dysfunctional in cancer and if they also generate vulnerabilities that could be exploited therapeutically.

As a doctor of medicine, when did you determine to focus on the research aspect of medicine? Are you still able to have close interactions with patients?

I do work with patients but I have not served in a primary capacity for several years. I am returning to direct patient care (on very limited basis) at the VA starting this Fall.

What are your hobbies? What do you like to do outside of the lab?

My main hobby is playing the classical guitar. I enjoy outdoor activities (hiking, kayaking, biking, and gardening).

What was your favorite and least favorite course in school? What was the hardest course for you while you were in school?

I always enjoyed math and physics and sciences in general. I don’t think I disliked subject matters per se, but I did not like courses given by uninspired or uninspiring teachers. Luckily those were very few.

Do you have a favorite Avanti product or category of products? Maybe a product that you’ve found most helpful in your research?

My lab has always worked with Avanti and used Avanti products. Before Avanti started making sphingolipids, we used another company to get sphingosine. That was a disaster, so we started making our own, then Avanti got into sphingolipids. So that solved the problem for us.

We would like to thank Dr. Yusuf Hannun for taking time to catch up with us!

Click HERE to learn even more about his exciting research!