Research at Hollings Cancer Center

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Research at Hollings Cancer Center




Guest:  Dr. Yusuf Hannun – Biochemistry & Molecular Biology

Host:  Dr. Linda Austin – Psychiatry


Dr. Linda Austin:  I’m Dr. Linda Austin.  I’m interviewing Dr. Yusuf Hannun who is Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Director of Research at Hollings Cancer Center here at the Medical University of South Carolina.  Dr. Hannun, Hollings Cancer Center is certainly a leader in the southeast in the area of cancer and we offer clinical services, certainly, to patients as well as training opportunities but, in this podcast, let’s focus on the research activities at Hollings Cancer Center where you are Director.  Can you tell us some of the areas of most active research that we have going on here?


Dr. Yusuf Hannun:  Sure, Linda.  The Hollings Cancer Center has been developing programs of research for at least the last 10 years or so and in the last decade, has focused on four primary, basic, research programs.  In addition to the basic research programs, the Hollings Cancer Center develops and promotes clinical and translational research.  If we focus on the basic research aspect today, the four main research programs are as follows.  The first one is focused on cancer genetics.  It aims at studying how genes can go wrong in cancers, how we can identify those genes, and from there, understand their function.  And, ultimately, obviously, the goal is, once one understands those, one could then interfere in terms of diagnostics, therapeutics, prognosis, so that one can understand cancer one at a time. 


Dr. Linda Austin:  There’s another program, I understand, at Hollings that looks at investigational therapeutics.  What, exactly, does that consist of?


Dr. Yusuf Hannun:  The first program on genetics is directed by Dr. Dennis Watson.  The program on experimental therapeutics is directed by Dr. Cantu, who is also Chairman of the Department of Pharmacology.  The goal of that program is to bring investigators and researches at the Hollings Cancer Center, at MUSC in general, and tackle the issues of how does one develop effective therapeutics to individual cancers?  Cancer is really a collection of many, many different cancers.  By understanding each of these cancers and what’s wrong with them, investigators can go and come up with good candidates for targets, what we call targets, for treatment.  These are genes or proteins that the investigators consider to be reasonable targets to develop therapy against them.  You can think of each of the cancers and ask, what is the Achilles’ heel there?  What, then, can be a direct therapeutic to target that?  And the investigators at the Hollings Cancer Center have become quite successful in taking several of these targets and advancing them to the next step.


Dr. Linda Austin:  In what types of cancer are they active now?


Dr. Yusuf Hannun:  Again, perhaps one could think of them in two categories.  There are targets that tend to be very specific to a specific cancer.  On the other hand, there are targets that seem to play more common roles in multiple cancers, not necessarily all cancers, but several cancers.

Dr. Linda Austin:  What are some of the other areas of research that we have going on at Hollings?


Dr. Yusuf Hannun:  The two remaining basic science programs are Cancer Immunology and Lipid Signaling.  Cancer Immunology is directed by Dr. Mike Nishimura from the Department of Surgery.  And, again, there, the main focus is to understand mechanisms of cancer immunity.  People need to realize that there’s an interaction, a dynamic interaction, between the cancer and the rest of the human body.  It’s a kind of a host/cancer interaction.  And that interaction is mostly immunologic in nature.  The cancer cells may have abnormal molecules, antigens, that the body thinks are foreign so it tries to get rid of them, but then the cancer may develop and evolve mechanisms to escape those immune functions.  And that’s why cancers tend to persist, whereas, for example, many bacterial infections or viral infections, once the body deals with the initial assault, the body develops very effective immune therapy, whereas in cancer, that fails because of this more difficult dynamic between cancer and body.


Dr. Linda Austin:  Now, the fourth area of research is actually headed up by your wife, Lina Obeid.  Can you give us a brief overview?


Dr. Yusuf Hannun:  Sure.  This program of lipid signaling in cancer builds on a rather unique group of scientists at MUSC that are leaders in what’s called lipid biology and lipid signaling.  People may be familiar with lipids as these molecules that give you calories, fat molecules, but lipids are very important in the structure of cell function and in the biologic responses of cells, and a whole class of lipids function as regulatory molecules.  And these molecules, we are learning, get misregulated in cancer, and this program is trying to understand this regulation of lipids in cancer and turn it around against the cancer cells so that one could get effective therapeutics.  And this program actually does now get into what we call translational science, meaning, developing ways to develop therapeutics, to acquire therapeutics based on this research.


Dr. Linda Austin:  Very exciting.  Dr. Hannun, thank you so much for talking with us today.


Dr. Yusuf Hannun:  Thank you.


If you have any questions about the services or programs offered at the Medical University of South Carolina or if you would like to schedule an appointment with one of our physicians, please call MUSC Health Connection:  (843) 792-1414.



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