Faculty Lunch Menu: Pizza, Soda and Treating Leukemia

December 22, 2011

The working lunch is not new. Companies use lunch meetings as a way to add an extra hour in the workday and build camaraderie.

But for a pair of Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences researchers, a weekly lunch meeting turned into a collaboration on a treatment for leukemia.

Sandeep Prabhu, associate professor of immunology and molecular toxicology in the Department of Veterinary and Medical Sciences, and Robert Paulson, associate professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences, recently announced they were able to target and kill the stem cells of chronic myelogenous leukemia, or CML, in mice using a compound produced from fish oil.

Killing the stem cells in leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells, is important because stem cells can divide to make more cancer cells, as well as create more stem cells. According to the American Cancer Society, about 5,150 new cases of CML are reported annually and approximately 270 people die from the disease each year. The average person's risk of getting CML is about 1 in 625, Prabhu said.

Prabhu, who specializes in the health benefits of fish oil, and Paulson, whose interests include leukemia, connected their seemingly separate study areas during a weekly faculty lunch for the Center for Molecular Immunology and Infectious Diseases. The lunches, which are sponsored by the Huck Institute of the Life Sciences, are held every Thursday at the Henning Building and are open to faculty members across the departments of the college and the University.

Attendance is voluntary and the sessions are informal. Prabhu also said that in these times of budget cuts, the faculty lunch talks are “low investment, high reward.”

“It’s very cheap,” Prabhu said with a laugh. “Just the cost of a pizza and soda.”

At times the lunches may serve as a roundtable discussion on an issue, or they may feature a specific talk by a researcher.

“Faculty come and give talks at these lunches,” said Prabhu. “They’re not just people in the College of Ag, but they come from around the University—faculty from engineering, computer science and other areas attend.”

Professors find support for current research and discuss new ideas at the meetings, Paulson said.

“We also use it as a forum for talking about future grant proposals, papers, et cetera,” Paulson said. “It is also a time where we can discuss events going around campus in the sciences in general.”

Prabhu talked about the health benefits of fish oil, prompting Paulson to recall a study about possible approaches to leukemia treatments with a compound mentioned by Prabhu.

“My lab was working on leukemia stem cells, and I was reading an article from Craig Jordan’s lab at the University of Rochester about compounds that might specifically target leukemia stem cells for destruction,” said Paulson. “The paper was about a particular compound parthenolide, but in the text he also mentioned 15-dPGJ2, which is what Sandeep works on.”

Paulson and Prabhu met later to discuss the idea.

“After the lunch, we began to talk,” Prabhu said. “It was really just a chat in the hallway, but we put two and two together basically and said let’s investigate this.”

The researchers said they are already in talks with Penn State College of Medicine faculty to test the compound—delta-12-protaglandin J3, or D12-PGJ3—on humans in trials. The compound is produced from EPA—Eicosapentaenoic Acid—an Omega-3 fatty acid, found in fish and in fish oil.


he researchers, who released their findings in the current issue of Blood and have applied for a patent, said the compound activates a gene—p53—that programs the cancer-causing stem cells in the mice's spleen and bone marrow. The gene maintains genomic stability and regulates how the cell responds to DNA damage.

Prabhu said that the approach may have uses in the treatment of other forms of cancer, but because of the complexity and the variety of cancer types, it would require further research.

The collaboration on leukemia might seem unlikely for agriculture and food scientists to work on, but just as eating good food is a way to maintaining health and preventing disease, food may hold the keys to reversing diseases such as leukemia, Prabhu said. Research in the college goes beyond traditional farming and agriculture and includes research areas in subjects such as food science, immunology and infectious diseases.

Prabhu and Paulson’s team included Naveen Kaushal, Kodihalli C. Ravindra and Chris Chiaro, post-doctorate scholars; Shailaja Hegde and Ujjawal Gandhi, graduate students; Kelsey Hafer, undergraduate student; Mary Kennett, director, animal resource program and professor, veterinary and biomedical sciences; Jack Vanden Heuvel, professor, veterinary and biomedical sciences; Jerry Thompson, research associate (microbiology); and Pam Hankey, professor, veterinary and biomedical sciences.

Last Updated December 22, 2011