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Professor Working to Stop Melanoma in its Tracks

October 15, 2012

Professor Fabian Filipp is trying to put up roadblocks. But instead of stopping cars, he’s trying to keep cancers from growing.

Filipp, a systems biology professor who started at UC Merced this fall, studies the metabolic cycle of melanoma, which is the leading cause of death from skin cancers.

“We are exposed to a lot of sunlight. Sun rays make us feel good, and in the short term, make us look good, too,” Filipp explained.

However, too much ultraviolet radiation accelerates the effects of aging and increases your risk for developing skin cancer.

“The Central Valley is a hotspot for melanoma. High exposure to sunshine and toxins from the agricultural economy can be a lethal combination,” Filipp said. “You better protect your skin.”

The National Cancer Institute estimates that in the United States there will be 76,250 new cases of melanoma this year and more than 9,000 deaths. Facing such a poor prognosis, it is important to find new ways to battle the lethal disease.

“In my lab, we are particularly interested in early detection of cancer,” Filipp said. “We found that cellular metabolism is a great indicator of cancerous changes and might leverage new cancer treatments.”

The metabolic cycle in cells is what drives energy and life. However, in cancer, this cycle goes in reverse. With cancer, the same metabolic roads are traveled, just in different ways. Because cancer cells grow and divide rapidly, these metabolic roads are as busy as traffic during rush hour.

“If we create a roadblock, we will cause a traffic jam and interrupt the uncontrolled growth of cancer,” he said.

Finding effective roadblocks to cure the disease can be challenging without a map. Filipp outlined melanoma’s metabolic map, which will be published in the upcoming issue of Pigment Cell and Melanoma Research. His research group will use that map to see where certain molecules could be used to set up roadblocks.

Filipp earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Heidelberg and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. After prestigious EMBO and National Institutes of Health fellowships at UC San Diego and the Sanford|Burnham Medical Research Institute, Filipp came to UC Merced, seeing urgent challenges in the region that could be addressed with metabolism research, including cancer, obesity and diabetes.

The Health Sciences Research Institute is a natural home for such interdisciplinary research. With more than 40 faculty members, the institute provides a strong framework to build collaborations.

Earlier in October, Filipp organized a meeting between researchers and local physicians at the Cancer Center of the Mercy Medical Center.

“There is a lot of interest and enthusiasm for developing further research collaborations between neighboring institutes,” he said.

At UC Merced, the cancer research cluster plans to find ways to improve cancer-related health disparities in the Central Valley.