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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Faculty Profile: Issam Ben-Sahra, PhD, assistant professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics

Issam Ben-Sahra, PhD

While a graduate student at the University of Sophia-Antipolis, Nice, France, Issam Ben-Sahra, PhD, assistant professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, became interested in studying the role of metabolic changes on cancer cells and tumor growth. This work has driven him to further study the regulation of metabolic pathways in cancer, specifically understanding the impact of mTOR-stimulated pathways.

Before joining Northwestern in 2016, Ben-Sahra completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard School of Public Health where he studied how the protein complex mTORC1 drives anabolic cell growth and proliferation. He is also a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University


What are your research interests?
My research interests lie in the field of cancer biology and metabolic pathways. My lab seeks to define the key molecular links between oncogenic events and cellular metabolism. In particular, we pursue to identify novel connections between oncogenic signaling and metabolic pathways required for nucleotide synthesis.

What is the ultimate goal of your research?
Deciphering the interplay between oncogenic processes and metabolic pathways that contribute to metabolic reprogramming in a given setting may serve as a critical factor in determining therapeutic targets that yield maximal drug efficacy with minimal deleterious effect on normal cells. The goal of my research program is to facilitate further progress in the exploitation of atypical metabolic features in cancer as a means of therapeutic intervention. 

How does your research advance medical science and knowledge?
My lab is focused on the regulation of nucleotide synthesis by oncogenes. Decoding how nucleotide metabolism is rewired in specific types of cancer can improve our understanding and therapeutic strategies to eradicate more specifically cancer cells.

How did you become interested in this area of research?
I am fascinated by all sciences, especially mathematics, astronomy and biochemistry. I was always interested in understanding how cancer cells or proliferative cells alter their metabolic program to maintain cell autonomous proliferation. When I was a graduate student, I became interested in studying the role of metabolic stress inducing agents in cancer cell survival. My PhD work elucidated the role of metabolic perturbations on cancer cell viability, and we were among the first to uncover the anti-cancer properties of the anti-diabetic drug metformin. Indeed, we demonstrated that metformin inhibits prostate cancer cell growth and proliferation through alteration of cellular metabolism. This work led me to dive in further into the regulation of metabolic pathways by signaling pathways in cancer.

How is your research funded?
My research is funded by the K99/R00 grant from the National Institute of Health and National Cancer Institute (NIH/NCI). This is a grant that helped me get the opportunity to obtain a faculty position and start my own lab at Northwestern University. 

What are some of your personal hobbies/interests?
When I have some spare time, I read about astronomy and new discoveries in this field. I am fascinated by the immensity of our universe (or multiverse) and the opportunity of finding Earth like planets where different forms of life could have spread.