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UC Merced Professor Focused on Skin Cancer

September 17, 2012

When he's not examining cell cultures inside his Castle Airport laboratory, you might find Fabian Filipp surfing the waves somewhere along California's coastline.

If you happen to catch the lean 35-year-old native of Munich, Germany, holding court at Pacific Beach or some other picturesque surf locale, however, he won't be without sunscreen.                                     

Case in point, Filipp is an assistant professor of systems biology and cancer metabolism at UC Merced, whose focus is studying the metabolic cycle of melanoma -- the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

Melanoma tumors originate in cells called melanocytes, which produce the skin's pigment. Mutations in melanocytes, often caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation, can cause melanoma. "When these cells turn bad, they give rise to melanoma," Filipp explained. "When we're exposed to dangerous UV radiation, there's changes in the cell's genetic program, and the cell proliferates and divides in an uncontrolled fashion."

The UC Merced lab where Filipp works is focused upon early detection and new ways to treat cancer. In Filipp's area of study, he's examining cell metabolism and how to use it to treat cancer. Filipp grows melanocytes in the laboratory, studying the ways they behave and analyzing them.

In particular, Filipp's focus is examining the set of chemical reactions that make cancerous cells grow and reproduce. He likens a melanoma cell's metabolism to a network of streets, where every road represents a chemical reaction.

Freeway in rush hour

He relates those chemical reactions as resembling a busy freeway during rush hour. "If we hit the cancer cells during such a rush hour, we might block traffic and challenge the uncontrolled growth of cancer," he said. "Now that we've identified the phenomenon, the next step will be to design drugs that specifically create roadblocks."

As part of Filipp's studies, he draws comprehensive maps of melanoma's metabolic cycle.

Despite the gains that have been made with cancer research, however, Filipp said early diagnosis and protecting one's skin remain the best tools to fight melanoma. "Especially in this area, where people are involved in outdoor activities, and there's a lot of farmworkers exposed to dangerous UV radiation," Filipp said. "We are very prone to skin cancer."

Filipp hopes his research will one day help lead to new treatments -- or maybe even a cure -- for melanoma. "Today, we have fantastic capabilities. Especially here at the university we have fantastic instrumentation and really incredibly smart and innovative people. But it has to be used for a good purpose," he said.

Filipp, who moved to Merced and started his work at UC Merced three weeks ago, plays an active role in UC Merced's new research unit, the Health Sciences Research Institute. As part of the institute, he's bringing together a group of university researchers and area physicians interested in cancer research to meet Sept. 25 at Mercy Medical Center Merced.

Juan Meza, UC Merced's Dean of Natural Science, said Filipp's research is extremely important to the scientific and health community. "Dr. Filipp is a wonderful addition to our research group in Quantitative and Systems Biology," Meza said. "With his interdisciplinary training, Professor Filipp fills a gap and brings new and critical expertise to this growing research area."

As a new Mercedian, Filipp said he's enjoying his time in the community and is looking forward to sharing his research with area professionals and doctors. "What I really love about this place is it's a young and dynamic campus," he said.

Prior to coming to UC Merced, Filipp held a postdoctoral fellowship in tumor metabolism at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla and a postdoctoral fellowship in metabolomics at the University of California, San Diego.

He holds a doctorate in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg.