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Cancer center hires new director

Yusuf Hannun, from the Medical University of South Carolina, has recently been hired as the new director of Stony Brook University Cancer Center.

For almost two years, the position had not been filled until Stony Brook’s Dean of Medicine Kenneth Kaushansky, who was appointed in June 2010, made it one of his initiatives to hire someone for the position.

“The job stayed open for about a year and a half until I got here,” Kaushansky said. “We did a national search. When I put out a call for candidates, we had many people who were really quite good.”

Kaushansky ended up choosing  Hannun, former deputy director of the Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina. Hannun also held the position of professor and chairman of biochemistry and molecular biology department.

Hannun comes into Stony Brook with significant experience in cancer research and the study of lipids. Lipids are a category of molecules, which include fats and cholesterol, that can dissolve in alcohol, but not in water, making them more difficult to study.

“These molecules are very important in cell regulation and cell communication,” Hannun said. “Many of these pathways that we study are turning out to be important in both cancer pathogenesis and cancer therapeutic.”

Hannun arrived at MUSC in 1998, and in 2009, he helped turn MUSC’s Hollings Cancer Center into one of only 66 centers designated by the National Cancer Institute. According to their website, NCI said that each designated center is “recognized for their scientific excellence. They are a major source of discovery and development of more effective approaches to cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.”

With such a prominent accomplishment under his belt, the question now is what Hannun will do to improve Stony Brook’s Cancer Center, which is not currently NCI-designated.

Hannun, a graduate from the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, said he believes that research is the vital element to a successful cancer center that has high hopes at one day being NCI-designated.

Hannun explained that graduate and-post doctorate students drive a majority of the research.

“The better you mentor students and post docs, the better research you get to do, so they are very intertwined,” Hannun said. “It’s a very rewarding experience.”

Kaushansky admitted that patient care is at the top of his list of things that need to improve at the Cancer Center, which is one of the reasons why he chose to recruit Hannun for the job.

“We need to recruit more people like Yusuf, more research scientists who are going to make breakthroughs in cancer biology,” Kaushansky said. “People who are going to take those new insights into cancer biology and turn them into better patient care and more advanced patient care.”

Mentoring students and post-doctorates while also focusing on research that needs to be done is a direction Kaushansky and Hannun.

“It’s equally important to develop the clinical side to high excellence because that’s where we deliver outstanding care to patients and we provide an outstanding environment for medical education,” Hannun said.

Good friend and former colleague at MUSC’s cancer center, Tony Alberg, expects Hannun to thrive at Stony Brook and be beneficial to a campus that could use a better equipped cancer center.

“Yusuf is a visionary and demanding scientist with an inexorable drive to propel cancer research forward, both in his own research and developing the research of others,” said Alberg, who now serves as the director for Cancer Prevention and Control at Hollings.

University of Kentucky College of Medicine Biochemistry Professor Bob Dickson nominated Hannun for the Avanti Award in lipids in 2010, which he later went on to win. Dickson thinks it’s very possible that Stony Brook will be the second NCI-designated school appointed under the direction of Hannun.

“I see no reason why he cannot steer the Stony Brook’s Cancer Center towards becoming an NCI-designated Cancer Center,” Dickson said.

Hannun’s values concerning research and the recent donation of $150 million by hedgefund manager James and Marilyn Simons in December 2011 will help push Stony Brook’s Cancer Center in the right direction.

The university plans to build a state-of-the-art Medical and Research Translation (MART) Building. This building will focus on cancer research and advancing cancer care for patients. On Stony Brook’s website, the new MART building is expected to come equipped with five cancer biology-oriented labs, 30-room cancer clinic for patients, 30-station clinical infusion center, a 300-seat auditorium for conferences, breakout rooms for smaller conferences and new classrooms for students. With Stony Brook’s new state-of-the-art center and Hannun’s background in research and history of patient care, hopes are high for Kaushansky.

“We are committed to making available to our patients the very best medicine has to offer; our patients deserve that from us,” Kaushansky said.

Hannun’s recent appointment has been recognized by colleagues across the nation as a step in the right direction for Stony Brook.

“Dr. Hannun is a thoughtful investigator,” Charles Serhan, a Professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, who worked with Hannun in the Lipid Research Division of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, said.

Serhan also has a personal connection to Stony Brook University and looks forward to seeing the impact Hannun will have on a thriving school.

An alumnus of the biochemistry department as an undergraduate at Stony Brook, Serhan said he was “very pleased that someone of Dr. Hannun’s international stature would join the already exceptional faculty of Stony Brook University.”

Hannun admitted that one of his primary goals was to become NCI-designated. If Stony Brook receives this achievement, they would only be the second NCI-designated center on Long Island along with Sloan-Kettering, which has two areas located in Hauppauge and Commack.

“We ought to be the leading cancer care designation in Long Island, without question,” Kaushansky said. “The people of Suffolk County deserve no less. Sloan-Kettering is who we’re taking on next.”

Kaushansky said that it will probably take Hannun five or six years to receive the NCI-designation at Stony Brook, but he’s confident in keeping that as a goal.

For Hannun, he said his main concentration is on research that has to be done. As to whether or not he believes a cure for cancer is in the near future, Hannun remained realistic, but hopeful.

“It’s not going to happen tomorrow or next year, but it’s happening,” he said.

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