Metabolism symposium celebrates foundation of life

Group photo on stage at the Sabri Ulker Symposium 2018
From left: Ali Ülker; Nobel Laureate Michael Brown; Sabri Ülker Science Award winner Ömer Yılmaz; Nobel Laureate Joseph Goldstein; Gökhan S. Hotamışlıgil, conference organizer; Begüm Mutuş, Sabri Ülker Foundation

June 26, 2018 – The Sabri Ülker Center at Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health kicked off its second symposium on “Metabolism and Life,” with musical performance, art, and lectures from innovative young researchers and Nobel laureates.

The symposium, held May 29-30 at Harvard’s Memorial Hall, featured a program of reports from the cutting edge of metabolism, the chain of interactions that direct the most vital functions of all living creatures.

Conference organizer Gökhan S. Hotamışlıgil

The event fulfilled the vision of Memorial Hall’s benefactor, Charles Sanders, of a space for both scholarship and artistic diversions. Following a musical performance by Turkey’s classical guitar virtuoso Ahmet Kanneci, Sabri Ülker Center Director and organizer of the Symposium Gökhan S. Hotamışlıgil set the themes of the evening—the role of creativity and looking far ahead in science, and the complementary roles played by young and established scientists.

The accompanying sculpture exhibit of works by Turkish artist Cem Sağbil was entitled “Sisyphos and Life,” and Hotamışlıgil said that the metaphor of Sisyphos eternally pushing a rock up a hill served the evening in many ways.

Especially, he noted, both art and science are complex and demanding and require a tremendous amount of devotion. “It’s tiring and exhausting, but we don’t see it as a punishment, but as a privilege,” said Hotamışlıgil.

Metabolism and a better life

“Basic science is an area of great power,” said Harvard Provost Alan Garber in his welcoming remarks. He hailed keynote speakers Joseph Goldstein and Michael Brown, joint winners of the 1985 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology, as among his heroes, and said that their research on cholesterol had demonstrated the power of basic science to save lives.

Metabolic research addresses some of the most important health challenges that face the world today, echoed Michelle Williams, Dean of Harvard Chan School. She noted that cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other non-communicable ailments require a different playbook than the one public health used for infectious diseases during the 20th century.

“But I can say with certainty … that the basic biology of diseases will lead the way,” said Williams.

The benefactor of the evening, and of Hotamışlıgil’s group, was the Sabri Ülker Foundation, founded in memory of a baker who became one of Turkey’s greatest entrepreneurs. The Ülker family established the Foundation to help fund research that addresses the unsustainable trend of metabolic diseases, said Ali Ülker, grandson of Sabri Ülker.

Elçin Ünal, University of California, Berkeley


A group of young researchers with roots in Turkey, all in the first stages of their scientific careers, comprised a “Rising Stars” panel that opened the scientific sessions. Elçin Ünal of the University of California, Berkeley, described her work on the forces that drive and prevent aging of cells at the most fundamental level of biology, the chromosomes that carry the genetic blueprints for life.

Ali Güler, University of Virginia (left) and Yasemin Sancak, University of Washington

Ali Güler of the University of Virginia then described his group’s work on how metabolism affects the function of brain circuits, followed by Yasemin Sancak of the University of Washington, who discussed how the element calcium is critical for the function of mitochondria and regulation of energy in cells.

Finally, Ömer Yılmaz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology presented his research on how diverse diets affect stem cells and their metabolism. At the end of the evening, Yılmaz was awarded the 2018 International Sabri Ülker Science Award for basic research in metabolism.

An enduring partnership

Hotamışlıgil introduced one of the most famous partnerships in modern science—Nobel laureates Joseph Goldstein and Michael Brown of the University of Texas, Southwestern, in Dallas. Through more than 45 years of work together, they have sketched out, and continue to fill in, the complex pathways that regulate cholesterol. 

Brown kicked off his keynote presentation by acknowledging the Sabri Ülker Foundation for its involvement in research. “When you’re supporting work in an established laboratory, you’re not only supporting those discoveries, you’re also supporting the creation of the next generation of scientists,” he said.

Brown and Goldstein did not look back to the early research that laid the groundwork for using statin drugs to prevent heart attacks and earned them the Nobel Prize. Instead, they focused on recent research that addresses another scourge of the modern world: diabetes. It turns out that two of the cholesterol pathway molecules that Brown and Goldstein have since discovered—SREBP and its partner Scap—are also important for diabetes.

SREBP comes in several varieties, and one, SREBP-1c, is found mostly in the liver, said Brown. He described how it responds to insulin levels by increasing the production of fatty acids, making SREBP-1c a key contributor to a harmful condition called fatty liver, a complication of type 2 diabetes and other metabolic conditions. Goldstein then discussed experiments in which the inhibition of Scap dramatically reduced the build-up of toxic fat, suggesting a treatment strategy for this consequence of diabetes.

From sparks to stars

“We opened the symposium with the rising stars, [showing] how you grow from being a spark to a rising star, and then we concluded with big, big stars who have risen as far as one can rise in science, so that people can see that these scientists are flesh and bone,” said Hotamışlıgil.

At the end of the evening, he presented a sculpture by Sağbil as an artistic expression of gratitude to Goldstein and Brown, along with the Sabri Ülker Science award to “Rising Star” Yilmaz. Entitled “Looking far ahead,” the statuette depicts a figure leaning against a wall, gazing thoughtfully into the distance.

The evening ended with remarks from Mark Elliott, vice provost for international affairs at Harvard, who lauded recent discoveries by Harvard scientists that he credited both to the Ülker family’s gift and Hotamışlıgil’s leadership.

“With this symposium, the relationship between Boston and Istanbul, two great cities on the water with reputations as centers of learning and hubs of research innovation and the exchange of ideas and technologies, is strengthened,” said Elliot.

Hakon Heimer

photos: Sarah Sholes