Tuesday, 23 April 2024

UC Davis researcher offers internships to local high school students

KELSEYVILLE – A University of California, Davis professor who has received a substantial grant for breast cancer research wants to give back to the community where he grew up, and is inviting local students to apply for internships in his program.

Michael DeGregorio, 53, grew up in Lake County. Six years ago, he bought a Kelseyville farmhouse built in 1870, which he moved into three months ago.

He commutes most days to UC Davis, where he's a professor of hematology and oncology. He also has a laboratory at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, and leads the pharmacology research program at UC Davis Cancer Center, where he specializes in the molecular analysis of drug activity and the evaluation of biomarkers of drug response or resistance. The majority of his work focuses on developing new drugs that improve women's health.

DeGregorio and his research team have received a $3 million grant from Merck KGaA to assess the effectiveness of Stimuvax, an experimental vaccine that targets MUC1, a cancer cell surface protein that is uniquely overexpressed in many cancers, including more than 90 percent of all breast cancers.

The study DeGregorio and longtime collaborator Greg Wurz, a UC Davis research scientist, are launching will study Stimuvax to determine if it can arrest or prevent breast cancer when used in conjunction with standard hormonal therapies.

They will assess the vaccine's ability to prevent breast cancer in mice bred to promote human MUC1 expression and a gene known to spontaneously cause breast cancer. The mice additionally will be exposed to one of four anti-estrogen therapies to assess the vaccine's impact.

Existing cancer vaccines for hepatitis B and the human papillomavirus aim to prevent the viral infections that can lead to liver and cervical cancers. But the experimental breast-cancer vaccine aims to stimulate the immune response against breast cancer tumors themselves.

Results from the UC Davis study will help direct the design of human clinical trials slated to begin worldwide in 2009, according to a statement from the university.

In an effort to give back to the community where he grew up, DeGregorio – a Kelseyville High School alumni – will offer up to six research internships this summer to local students who excel in the sciences.

Students will receive three to four weeks' experience in DeGregorio's state-of-the-art lab, where he said they will see actual cancer patients. Participating students also will be able to conduct molecular biology-type studies in labs.

Those students who complete the internship will come away with a letter of recommendation that can help them get into schools at a time when competition for spots at state colleges is getting tighter, he said.

The internships are open to all area high school students, who DeGregorio said must be at least 16 years of age.

DeGregorio said he hopes that, by giving students first-hand experience in a research lab and showing them how scientists apply knowledge to find solutions to challenging health problems, he'll help those who may be interested in pursuing a career in research or medicine.

Matthew Cockerton, principal of Kelseyville High School, said he appreciates the opportunity to expand students' knowledge.

"Opportunities like this don't surface for our school too often," he said. "Anytime we can give students real-world experience at a nationally ranked university, we are elated. And we are deeply grateful to Dr. DeGregorio for remembering his early experience and offering his laboratory to broaden our students' education."

DeGregorio has been all over the world since leaving Lake County to pursue his studies as a young man.

He started off at junior college, then went on to San Francisco State. DeGregorio received his doctorate from the University of California, San Francisco, where he became a faculty member at age 26.

DeGregorio would later go on to become an associate-level professor at Yale while he was in his early 30s. Then it was on to the University of Texas, where he became a full professor and started a biotech company. He arrived at UC Davis in 1994.

Throughout his travels around the world, DeGregorio said he always wanted to return to Lake County.

Now that he's back, he's placing this new focus on helping local students who have an aptitude for science.

DeGregorio notes there are very bright young people in Lake County. “I really think that we have to even the playing field a little bit out there, the best we can. This is my small way of doing it.”

He estimates his program of study on the effectiveness of the experimental vaccine in humans will last 10 years, with the $3 million grant covering three to four years of study. Within five years they should know if the vaccine works for humans, with human trials scheduled this year.

“In science, nothing ever happens the way you think,” he said, noting that serendipity is responsible for 80 percent of all inventions.

If the vaccine doesn't work, the study will be discontinued, he said.

The protein MUC1 is “a pretty hot topic right now,” said DeGregorio. In addition to breast cancer, MUC1 is now being studiec in relation to lung cancer.

There are many variations of cancer, and DeGregorio said at the molecular level they're all different.

Recent big breakthroughs in cancer involve leukemia in children, which DeGregorio said may be curable, according to the latest studies. There also is increased promise in curing testicular cancer.

“The idea of prevention is where we should be going,” he said, adding that, once you get cancer, it's hard to beat.

DeGregorio said he will be contacting area school principals and science teachers to find eligible students.

He also invited anyone interested in the program to contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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