New Cancer Metabolism Program at Pennington Biomedical

Longtime Pennington Biomedical Research Foundation board member Art Favre did not need to be sold on the need to study the metabolism of cancer. Through his generous investment of $1.2 million, the Cancer Metabolism Research Program at Pennington was born. The research will have a particular focus on cancer survivorship and prevention through nutrition, weight control, physical activity and chemopreventive strategies. This research program builds on Pennington Biomedical’s strengths and will further expand collaborative relationships with regional cancer centers and health professionals.

“This gift is all about the utilization of these researchers’ talents. They are continually opening doors to the secrets of the complexities of life. This step-by-step process brings us closer every day to the ultimate goal of a disease free society,” said Favre.

After completing research training at The University of Pennsylvania and doing his fellowship training at Harvard University, Justin Brown, Ph.D., was heavily recruited by 12 other prestigious research centers and medical schools all over the country. But it was Southeast Louisiana and Pennington Biomedical Research Center specifically where he ultimately decided to put down his roots. Already familiar with the area after assisting with post-Katrina recovery efforts and running the Mardi Gras marathon, he immediately sensed that Pennington Biomedical “is a very special place.”

Dr. Brown was tapped to lead the newly created Cancer Metabolism Research Program made possible through Favre’s philanthropy. His research focuses on cancer prevention and understanding what happens when a patient engages in exercise after a cancer diagnosis. Evidence suggests that patients who are physically active after their first cancer diagnosis are less likely to relapse. In addition to exercise, Dr. Brown wants to understand how and why losing weight, optimizing diet, and managing diabetes can prevent a relapse.

Brown said that two distinct factors make Pennington such a special place: its focused mission and the transdisciplinary team of scientists who collaborate and support each other across basic, clinical, and population research disciplines, something that most other research facilities lack.

The mission of Pennington Biomedical is laser focused on chronic diseases and exploring the impact of diet, physical activity, and nutrition on chronic disease.

“Because of our mission, researchers here have already “bought in” to the importance of maintaining a healthy weight, eating a good diet, being physically active, and, if they have diabetes, managing it aggressively. At a lot of other places, researchers have not bought in to this message yet because the mission is so broad and the focus on lifestyle just falls by the wayside,” he said.

With fewer scientists who silo themselves, the work at Pennington Biomedical can progress at a much faster rate. Scientists are on the same page and basic scientists, clinical researchers and population researchers work side by side, together, to find solutions rather than first needing to defend the importance of their work.

“Institutions with those people exist, and they certainly have offices on the same campus, but they are very sequestered. They don’t go to the same talks, they don’t apply for the same grants, they don’t sit on the same advisory boards, and they speak very different languages. They could be right next door to each other working on similar projects and never talk to each other,” said Brown.

“The culture here is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,” he added. “This is a very special place that has done and will continue to do amazing things to improve management or prevention of chronic diseases in humans. Pennington Biomedical is poised to continue to put out important, historic discoveries.”

Since obesity, diabetes, and physical inactivity are all risk factors for developing cancer, one goal is to create interventions for patients, such as an exercise plan, that they can combine with targets that can be therapeutically manipulated with drugs. Understanding the biology of what links healthy lifestyle and cancer recurrence is key, and that’s precisely what Dr. Justin Brown aims to discover.