Sitting in a chair that may have rivaled its occupant’s age, Eugene Roberts, Ph.D., radiated a grandfatherly warmth as he welcomed his visitor. His bright, penetrating eyes were tempered by a familiar sort of kindness, and their expressive nature belied the more than nine decades they had been viewing — no, observing — the world.
Roberts recently was named Distinguished Professor in Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope. Despite his advanced age (he is 91), he continues to search for nature’s answers with the same vigor as the day he received his doctorate in biochemistry in 1943 from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Eugene Roberts will discuss his glutamine research at the upcoming Beckman Symposium. (Photo by p.cunningham)
He was preparing a short presentation he had been asked to give at City of Hope’s upcoming Beckman Symposium, slated for Nov. 7, and took the time to explain the work he would outline.
The symposium will focus on cancer’s connection to metabolism, an area of study in which Roberts made pioneering discoveries beginning in the late 1940s.
Following a three-year stint on the Manhattan Project — the U.S. government’s program aimed at developing an atomic weapon — during World War II, Roberts took a research post at Washington University in St. Louis. While there, he grew curious about the differences between cancerous and healthy tissues. His ponderings led him to compare the amounts of free or loosely bound amino acids in normal and cancerous cells.
Amino acids are the basic building blocks of proteins. Researchers in recent years have shown that one amino acid in particular, glutamine, may play a significant role in cancer. Roberts suspected as much more than 60 years ago.
In studies first published in the journal Science in 1949, he compared the amounts of amino acids in various healthy tissues such as breast tissue and skin to the amounts in tumors from those same types of tissues. He found that each normal tissue produced its own distinct pattern of amino acids, and tumors produced different patterns compared to healthy tissue.
What surprised Roberts was that all tumors appeared to show a similar pattern of amino acids, whether they were from breast, skin or other tissue.
“We could distinguish between different normal healthy tissues and tumor tissue, but not between different tumors. Regardless of the tissues they came from, the pattern of amino acids always looked the same for all tumors,” he said.
Roberts noted in particular the low or even undetectable levels of glutamine in tumors. This led him to study glutamine’s role in cancer and metabolism — but the scientific tools and methods of the age lacked the sophistication he needed to fully explore his theories.
Now, scientists worldwide have vigorously taken up research into the role of glutamine in cancer and what that may mean for new therapies. Several researchers will present their latest findings on the topic at the Beckman Symposium.
Roberts, who has made numerous groundbreaking discoveries in his career, including being the first to discover the presence of gamma aminobutyric acid in the brain and uncovering its role in suppressing the activity of neurons, seems confident that new research will further reveal important links between glutamine and cancer.
And from his weathered old chair, where so many calculations were done and papers written and rewritten over the years, he offered a new theory of his own. Based on conversations with other researchers at City of Hope, he believes the membrane that surrounds the nucleus of cells may be involved in controlling gene activity, with glutamine playing a key role.
“I’m still working on this idea, but I see a pattern — a connection,” he said. Only time will tell.