Dr. Yusuf Hannun’s landmark contributions to biochemistry and medicine are profound. As an award-winning molecular biologist, clinician, and professor of medicine, he has been leading the charge against cancer and other formidable diseases. Pioneering discoveries in the field of lipids and their role in cell regulation and growth have brought him international renown, earning him the title “father of modern sphingolipid research.” He is currently Director of Stony Brook University Cancer Center, Vice Dean for Cancer Medicine, Joel Kenny Professor of Medicine, and Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University (SBU), New York. Before taking on this directorship, he held leadership roles at the Medical University of South Carolina and at Duke University.
Hannun, was born in Saudi Arabia of Palestinian parents, Mrs. Aida Ashur-Hannun and the late Dr. Awni Hannun, both of whom set high examples of service to others, humility and integrity. Dr. Yusuf Hannun received his early education in Beirut at the International College. It was at AUB that he earned his BS in 1977, his MD with distinction in 1981, and served his internship and residency in internal medicine. AUB is also where he met his wife, fellow physician-scientist and biomedical researcher, Dr. Lina Obeid (MD ’83).
Hannun left Lebanon in 1983 to take up specialty training at Duke University, with a fellowship in hematology and oncology as well as post-doctoral training in Biochemistry under Professor Robert Bell. The opportunity to do lab research captivated the young scientist as he applied himself to expanding the understanding of the complex study of membrane lipids and their roles in signaling cellular changes, particularly as they relate to cancer cells. Discoveries he made at Duke opened pathways for the development of patented drugs and chemicals for a variety of treatments for cancer and many other fields. Before long he was promoted to Wayne Rundles Professor of Medicine. He was also Deputy Director of Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center, a position where he was able to combine his skills as a researcher with hands-on clinical work.
In 1998, Hannun moved to the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) to be Chair of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology where he also held the Ralph F. Hirschmann Chair of Biomedical Research, and he also served as Deputy Director of the Hollings Cancer Center. As Layton McCurdy said when Dr. Hannun joined MUSC, “He brings a high level of creativity, insight and ability to inspire fellow scientists. These attributes make him the perfect choice to lead research efforts within the department, as well as in conjunction with other programs.”
While at MUSC his group made remarkable progress, transforming the Center to the rare stature of being noted by the National Cancer Institute as NCI-designated. At that time there were only sixty such designated centers in the United States. During his ten years at the Hollings Cancer Center he led research that concentrated on four aspects of cancer, which included: its genetics, the therapeutics of each individual case of the disease, immunology and the body’s effort to combat the disease, and the pivotal roles that lipids play in signaling changes in cells.
The success that Hannun has had as a researcher has served to generate energy and resources not only to support his own work, but also to bring prestige and increased potential to all those who work with him. His contribution to more than 500 scholarly publications has attracted tremendous grant support and recognition. Hannun has published seven books, secured six patents, and written scores of reviews, in addition to delivering numerous plenary session talks at scientific meetings. His Hirsch-index, which portrays the impact of his work by measuring how often it is cited by his peers, indicates an enviable 109. He has supported and advised over 60 PhD and post-doctoral students whose value and significance he has always recognized. Of them he says, “The better you mentor students and post docs, the better research you get to do, so they are very intertwined.”
He is lead scientist on four NCI R01 grants, which are considered the gold standard of biomedical funding. He is Principal Investigator of a Program Project Grant and Co-Investigator on a $10 million Lipid Signaling Core Grant. He also holds a Merit Award from the National Institute of Health. His funding record has been uninterrupted for over 25 years, averaging millions of dollars per year.
In recognition of his accomplishments, he has been elected to a number of prestigious societies, including the American Society for Clinical Investigation and the Association of American Physicians, and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was also awarded the prestigious Avanti Award for Lipid Research from the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
In 2013, Hannun received the Kuwait Prize in Basic Sciences to honor his groundbreaking research on bioactive sphingolipids, and because his discoveries have advanced basic science research in molecular biology. This extremely prestigious annual prize, issued by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science, recognizes distinguished scientific accomplishments of Arab scientists.
Hannun was selected from a large field of highly successful scientists to lead Stony Brook Cancer Center. Building on the existing strengths of the University, Dr. Hannun is looked to as someone who can help SBU attain NCI-designation. SBU plans a Medical and Research Translation (MART) Building to focus on advanced research and care for cancer patients, which will be headed by Lina Obeid, who is now dean of research at SBU. Hannun and Obeid, who have been married for 31 years, have succeeded in building remarkable careers in molecular biology, while also finding the time to raise triplets who are by their own right successful PhD students at Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown Universities.
As a researcher, mentor, and administrator, Hannun has spent a lifetime challenging cancer. His work to advance disease prevention and treatment has already had a tremendous impact and he is not done yet. When asked about the likelihood of discovering a cure for cancer, Dr. Hannun is realistic but hopeful. “It’s not going to happen tomorrow or next year, but it’s happening.”