Eileen White, Joshua Rabinowitz and Yibin Kang in front of microscopy of cells

Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research and Princeton University partner to ‘push the frontiers’ on diet, metabolism and cancer

April 13, 2021 8:15 a.m.

Eileen White, Joshua Rabinowitz and Yibin Kang are the three principal investigators heading up the Ludwig Princeton Branch, a new branch of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research based at Princeton University. The researchers will tackle questions of how diet and metabolism interact with cancers. Here, the scientists are pictured in front of a microscopic image of breast cancer (left) metastasizing into bone tissue (right).

Princeton University is the home of a new branch of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, an international community of distinguished scientists dedicated to preventing and controlling cancer.

The Ludwig Princeton Branch will focus on cancer metabolism and its promise for new and better ways to prevent and treat cancer, addressing questions like: Since tumors feast on glucose, should cancer patients eat more sugary treats or fewer? When advanced cancer patients see their bodies wasting away, should they fight back with carb loading or steak? How does cancer hijack a patient’s metabolism to grow and metastasize?

Joshua Rabinowitz, a professor of chemistry and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton who specializes in cancer and metabolism, serves as director of the branch. Eileen White, a distinguished professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at Rutgers University, is the associate director of the branch and is a longtime collaborator with Princeton cancer scientists. Yibin Kang, Princeton’s Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis Professor of Molecular Biology, is a principal investigator and founding member of the new branch.

Ludwig Cancer Research's other primary locations are Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, Memorial Sloan Kettering, MIT, Stanford University, the University of California-San Diego, the University of Chicago, the University of Lausanne (Switzerland) and the University of Oxford.

The branch in Princeton will be the first Ludwig location to focus on cancer metabolism, an area that Ludwig believes “holds considerable promise for the optimization of cancer prevention and therapy,” said Chi Van Dang, the scientific director of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research.

“The new branch offers us the chance to capitalize on multiple areas where Princeton is a world leader and has world-leading technologies that haven’t yet been applied to cancer,” said Rabinowitz. “We want to continue to push the frontiers of those technologies, because ultimately technologies drive biological understanding, which opens up new avenues for cancer treatment and prevention.”

Joshua Rabinovitz

“Diet is an overlooked therapeutic strategy,” said Princeton chemist Joshua Rabinowitz. “People know they need to try to stay nourished, but they really get no detailed guidance. For example, a lot of patients are told to take fish oils, because fish oils are viewed as good fat. But there’s also both experimental and clinical evidence that polyunsaturated fats like fish oils accelerate the growth of certain tumors. So here you have dieticians giving very generic health advice to a set of patients who have a really specific health problem, and they probably need quite different advice.”

“Ludwig chose Princeton because of our renowned strength in disciplines of critical importance to the study of cancer metabolism, including basic cancer research, metabolomics, genomics, biology, and the computational and physical sciences,said University Provost Deborah A. Prentice, who was instrumental in the development of the relationship with Ludwig. “This new partnership goes to the heart of what Princeton is all about. It draws on Princeton’s breadth of excellence in fundamental science to drive real-world breakthroughs at the cutting edge of cancer care.”

The intersection of diet and cancer

The branch will focus on three main areas: dietary strategies to prevent and treat cancer; how bodies inadvertently support tumor growth and metastasis; and the interplay between a patient’s metabolism, gut microbiome and anti-cancer immune response.

“Diet is an overlooked therapeutic strategy that can either help turn on an immune response or work with classical drugs to make them work better at treating cancer,” said Rabinowitz.

The researchers plan to run diet trials that are both scientifically rigorous and immediately beneficial to patients. “Pharmaceutical companies won’t typically pay for those,” Rabinowitz said. “Hopefully we’ll be engaged in multiple trials of this sort, both locally and taking advantage of the best-in-world clinical investigators, wherever they may be.”

Rabinowitz hopes to have targeted nutritional advice for cancer patients within the next decade.

“People know they need to try to stay nourished, but they really get no detailed guidance,” he said. “For example, a lot of patients are told to take fish oils, because fish oils are viewed as good fat. But there’s also both experimental and clinical evidence that polyunsaturated fats like fish oils accelerate the growth of certain tumors. So here you have dieticians giving very generic health advice to a set of patients who have a really specific health problem, and they probably need quite different advice. Perhaps they need to be told, ‘Skip the salmon, go have some butter and steak.’ I’m not saying we’re there yet, but that’s where I want us to get.”

Princeton research to complement Rutgers Cancer Institute and RWJ Barnabas Health

The clinical translation of discoveries made at the Ludwig Princeton Branch will be conducted in the tri-state area, including in partnership with RWJ Barnabas Health and Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.

“The longtime alliance between Rutgers Cancer Institute and Princeton University — our NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center research consortium partner — provides an incredible foundation and body of work for the launch of the Ludwig Princeton Branch,” said Rutgers Cancer Institute Director Steven K. Libutti, the senior vice president for oncology services at RWJBarnabas Health and the vice chancellor for cancer programs at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences.

Libutti continued: “As associate director of the branch, Rutgers Cancer Institute’s Deputy Director and Chief Scientific Officer Eileen White brings her leadership and vast expertise in cancer autophagy and cellular metabolism. We look forward to the discoveries made through this new collaboration.”

“Eileen and I have worked together for a long time, and very effectively,” said Rabinowitz. “She is absolutely a world leader, in particular in thinking about nutrient recycling processes and how they impact cancer outcomes. These recycling processes both support cancer growth and suppress anti-cancer immune response. Her recent work on that has been spectacular.”

The research-centered focus of the new branch will complement the patient-centered focus of Rutgers Cancer Institute.

“Princeton is proud to partner with Rutgers, New Jersey’s preeminent public research institution, in joining forces with one of the great cancer research institutes in the world,” said Prentice.

The partnership with Ludwig will allow the New Jersey-based researchers to gather the best-in-the-world metabolic information on human tumors, while also bringing Princeton’s and Rutgers’ strengths to the global Ludwig community.

Yibin Kang

“The unique strengths of Princeton in computational biology, physical sciences, biological engineering and policy research will synergize with the broader network of cutting-edge cancer research community at Ludwig to create unprecedented opportunities,” said Princeton molecular biologist Yibin Kang. “That opens the door to breakthroughs in understanding cancer metabolism — its progression, metastasis and the immune response — and in coming up with new ways to target it.”

Rabinowitz said he hopes the new branch will attract leading cancer, immune response and metabolism researchers from around the region and beyond. “With research support that provides the freedom to pursue critical work, and with access to the Ludwig global community of cancer scientists, as well as to Princeton’s leading faculty from throughout the computational and natural sciences, we see the branch as an opportunity to build something big.”

Kang, who with Rabinowitz and White will make up the leadership of the new branch, agreed.

“The unique strengths of Princeton in computational biology, physical sciences, biological engineering and policy research will synergize with the broader network of cutting-edge cancer research community at Ludwig to create unprecedented opportunities,” said Kang, a world leader in the mechanisms that drive cancer metastasis.

He continued: “Princeton has such a diverse and interdisciplinary research community in a close-knit environment. We also have a close collaboration with multiple groups at Rutgers. These very close relationships among very diverse research areas allow us to bring in technologies from many different angles. That opens the door to breakthroughs in understanding cancer metabolism — its progression, metastasis and the immune response — and in coming up with new ways to target it.”

Educational and research opportunities

The new branch will open new educational and research opportunities for postdocs, graduate students and undergraduates at Princeton.

“Cancer is a disease that touches so many of us,” Rabinowitz said. “From Princeton undergraduates to the grad students and faculty, I think we all appreciate the importance of this problem, and we’re all motivated to bring our expertise to bear on it. One thing that I really want to do is catalyze the application to cancer of technologies where Princeton is the world leader.”