Editor’s note: The California Aggie interviewed chemistry professor Carlito Lebrilla, whose groundbreaking research with cancer detection is making history.
Q: How did you become interested in chemistry?
A: Let’s see, that was a long time ago. I became interested in chemistry because I really liked the science. I thought biology was too descriptive and physics was a little too theoretical. Chemistry just seemed to be right in the middle with applications and being more physical by nature. Also, I had a great high school teacher in chemistry that really excited me about it. Actually, my father was a chemist but he told me not to go into chemistry. But my high school teacher made it sound so exciting so I went into chemistry anyways.
Q: Why do you focus your research in the area of nutrition and disease markers?
A: Because the area we are studying can have so many applications. We are studying carbohydrates called saccharides, which are very difficult to analyze. So my team develops methods to study them.
We got interested in cancer markers because it is possible that diseases like cancer are actually just changes in carbohydrate structures in cancer cells. We thought this would be a great application for the special methods we are developing. It turns out that these sugars were not well characterized and they were doing things in the gut that we weren’t quite sure about. When we applied our methods, in collaboration with other people, we started figuring out what these saccharides were doing.
Q: What is the Lebrilla League?
A: That is just my research group. That’s what they call themselves.
Q: What research are you currently working on?
A: Right now, we are trying to develop cancer tests for breast, prostate and ovarian cancer. We are using the analytical tools that we developed in our lab. So really, I’m an analytical chemist. With the tools, we are trying to create a rapid and comprehensive test for diseases like cancer. That’s one area we are working on.
In the other area, we are looking at milk and analyzing all the different components of it, using it as the model for the perfect food. We are trying to figure out what compounds are in there that an infant body needs for nutrition to see if we can understand how nutrition works in the molecular level.
Q: Why do you believe that mammalian milk is the perfect food?
A: Because it’s been vetted by millions of years of evolution. It is the only food that has evolved with us. If you look at plants and cows, they didn’t evolve to become our food. We, in essence, made them our food. Milk is truly the only thing that has evolved with us.
Q: What do you believe is your biggest accomplishment?
A: I think my biggest accomplishment was to put together a world-class research team that is helping us understand important things about diseases and diet.
NICK MARKWITH can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.