Feinberg Faculty Linked by Love of Science, Art, Travel

By Anne SteinMarch 2, 2017

The bookshelves in their North Side Chicago home are packed with 5,000 volumes, ranging from Arabic and Armenian literature to most of the classics in English. The art on the walls is a road map to their global travels; two masks from Costa Rica sit by the front door while opposite is a watercolor of a Tibetan monastery. There are pieces by Aboriginal, Pakistani, Armenian, and Bangladeshi artists, as well as several Midwest landscapes.

“Ask how many countries we haven’t been to,” says A. Vania Apkarian, smiling, when quizzed about where he and his spouse, Seema Khan, have traveled. “We think of the world as our home. I don’t believe in the boundaries of this planet.” Besides, he says, “being from Syria and Pakistan ensures you have friends and relatives all over the world.”

The two Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine faculty members met nearly three decades ago at a dinner party in Syracuse, New York, and bonded over a mutual interest in US politics. “We were on the same side of  a political argument,” explains Khan, who at the time was finishing a surgical oncology fellowship at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo. Apkarian was completing his physiology doctorate at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University.

Born and raised in Pakistan, Khan came to the United States for better postgraduate opportunities after completing medical school in Karachi. Apkarian arrived at age 18, via Armenia, Syria, and Lebanon, to attend the University of Southern California. Married since 1989 and based at Northwestern for the past 16 years, the couple shares a love of science, art, and travel.

“Literature and art inspire us in a creative way,” says Apkarian, a professor of physiology, anesthesiology, and physical medicine and rehabilitation. “One needs the freedom of creativity to do fun science like this.”

While Kahn focuses her clinical practice and research on breast cancer prevention and treatment, Apkarian’s lab at Feinberg’s downtown Chicago campus concentrates on chronic pain and its relationship to structural changes in the brain.

“The major push nowadays is to understand the risk factors of chronic pain, and what we’ve uncovered is that the main risk factors are changes in brain structure and function, rather than the injury,” explains Apkarian. “Of course the injury is an important factor, but it’s the brain properties that determine who develops chronic pain and who doesn’t.”

Apkarian recently applied for a National Institutes of Health grant to create what he hopes will become the first national center on chronic pain and drug abuse, to be located at Northwestern. “There’s a massive epidemic of opiate abuse and mortality, and absolutely a large portion of that comes from opiate and morphine treatment of chronic pain patients,” he explains. “Yet there’s very little science on how opiate treatment works for chronic pain. That’s what this center is all about — how treatment and chronic pain influence each other.”

Across the street from Apkarian’s office and lab is his wife’s practice at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center. A surgeon who divides her time between treating patients and conducting research, Khan holds the title of Bluhm Family Professor of Cancer Research and specializes in breast cancer risk and prevention. She is also head of the Northwestern Cancer Prevention Consortium, which performs early-stage cancer prevention clinical trials.

Khan is especially focused on two objectives: finding better ways to identify those at high risk for breast cancer (and in turn subjecting fewer patients to cancer treatment) and improving prevention strategies by reducing the toxic side effects of common cancer-fighting medications. She and colleagues have found that when the breast cancer drug tamoxifen is applied as a gel to the breast rather than taken as a pill, it does less harm to other parts of the body and avoids the risk of blood clots. Endoxifen, another form of tamoxifen, is even more promising, says Khan, who plans to test an endoxifen gel in a year or so. “The National Cancer Institute has grown very interested in transdermal drugs for cancer prevention, so it’s really taking off,” she says. “Transdermal delivery will be a major advance in cancer prevention if it pans out.”

Khan’s current research stems from a paper on breast pain that she and her husband published together in the 1990s. They modified a pain questionnaire for the paper and were subsequently contacted by a company developing a tamoxifen gel for breast pain management. Khan thought the gel could work for breast cancer prevention while causing fewer adverse side effects, and persuaded the company to sponsor a study, leading to her transdermal drug studies today.

Now that Apkarian and Khan are empty nesters — their daughter lives and works for nongovernmental organizations in Armenia, while their son studies writing at Kenyon College — they spend more time together in their art- and book-filled home in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood.

“We talk quite a lot about work because I can help with the design, recruitment, and analysis of the human trials he’s doing,” says Khan. “He’s very forward-thinking and uses social media and other formats I wouldn’t think of. I show him data and he’s good at statistics and gives me advice.”

“My wife’s work has influenced me in many ways,” adds Apkarian. The beauty of science, he says, is that scientists can influence society at large. “My wife helps people every day, while my work is much more theoretical. But I am doing the basic science with the optimistic viewpoint that we will make the planet suffer less pain at some time. I don’t know if that will happen in my lifetime, but I’d like to see that.”