Dr. Michael Demetriou is Director of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society Designated Comprehensive Care Clinic, Professor of Neurology, and Chief of the Division of Multiple Sclerosis and Neuroimmunology at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) School of Medicine. He was awarded his MD and his PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Toronto. Mike completed his residency in Neurology at the University of Toronto as well and completed his postdoctoral fellowship at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. He has received a variety of awards and honors in his career, including being named a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Canada. In addition, he has received UCI’s College of Medicine Committee on Research Award, the Health Science Partners Research Award, the Academic Senate Distinguished Service Award, and the Dr. S. Van Den Noort Research Award for Junior Faculty. In our interview, Mike shares more about his life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (3:00)
Mike is a big fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team. While he doesn’t play hockey himself anymore, he loves watching professional hockey games and seeing the Maple Leafs play whenever they are in town.
The Scientific Side (3:48)
In his research, Mike studies the biological roles of complex sugars called glycans. Glycans are mostly found outside of cells and on cell surfaces. They form a dense forest around the surface of cells and can interact with other proteins to regulate cellular functions through interactions with other cell surface proteins. Mike’s lab is interested in how these cell surface glycans influence biology and disease, particularly in autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS) and in diseases like cancer where there are commonly abnormalities in these glycans.
A Dose of Motivation (6:21)
One thing that motivates Mike is the idea of perseverance, and this trait is key for success in science.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (8:24)
When Mike started college, he wanted to be a medical doctor. He was the first person in his family to go to college, and he had never heard of a PhD degree. During college, he met a fellow student whose father had a PhD, and Mike learned more about research in biomedical science. He was thrilled to discover that the University of Toronto had a dual MD/PhD program because this would allow him to integrate his clinical interests with research. Figuring out the right combination for his clinical specialty and research focus was initially challenging for Mike. Initially, he thought he wanted to be an oncologist, so he did research relevant to cancer for his PhD. When he returned to finish medical school after his PhD, he realized that oncology wasn’t the best fit for him. Mike didn’t like constantly feeling like he had failed when a patient with cancer passed away despite being given the best available care. He struggled to see himself being happy working in this area long term. Ultimately, he decided to pursue neurology because there were many interesting unanswered research questions in the field, and he found this clinical area rewarding as well. In particular, he discovered that inflammation contributes to pathology in a lot of neurological diseases. Mike returned to his PhD lab to conduct postdoctoral research looking at the relevance of the immune system and T-cells in multiple sclerosis, and this work resulted in a high profile paper that helped him launch his research career and land a faculty position at UCI where he is today.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (25:01)
Within his first year working as an assistant professor at UCI, Mike was successful in getting funding for his research from the National Institutes of Health. Things were off to a great start. However, his first grant ended five years later, and it was a struggle to get a second grant. There was less government funding for research available at that point, and he was still relatively early in his career as a scientist. It was a major challenge, but Mike succeeded by persevering and continuing to submit grant applications until one was eventually funded.
A Shining Success! (27:42)
Mike has had some exciting successes in his research in the area of autoimmune disease looking at multiple sclerosis. In particular, they are seeing promising results in their work investigating N-Acetylglucosamine as a compound to increase the amount of cell surface glycans, and thus reduce the hyperactivity of T-cells in autoimmune disease. Mike is excited to test this approach in a larger clinical trial next. The other side of Mike’s work investigates tumor immunity where the immune system attacks cancerous cells. His group is developing an immune-based cancer therapy focused on cell surface glycans. In cancer, it is common for there to be abnormal glycans on the surface of cells, and these abnormal glycans may be good targets for attacking just the tumor cells. Mike was thrilled to receive funding through The Vice President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Program to investigate whether they can harness the immune system to kill tumor cells using genetically engineered chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-Cells that target the abnormal cell surface glycans. So far, they have developed multiple therapeutics that can target different glycans. This approach is unique because one drug can target most solid tumor cancers. They are now to the point of getting these new therapeutics into human clinical trials.
Book Recommendations (31:47)
The Lord of the Rings series by J. R. R. Tolkien and political blogs or posts such as The Hill.
Most Treasured Travel (32:41)
Over the course of his career, Mike has enjoyed going to many meetings in great locations with excellent science. This year, he was excited to attend the annual meeting of the Society for Glycobiology on the Big Island of Hawai’i. He had been to the island over a decade ago, but didn’t have a chance to go to the top of Mauna Kea, a sacred inactive volcano on the island. On his latest trip, he was able to scale the volcano, and it was a remarkable experience. On the ascent, you start at near sea level and climb to nearly 14,000 feet over the course of just a few hours. There are multiple large astronomy telescopes at the top of the volcano, and the 360-degree view from the top was incredible.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (36:19)
Many scientists have interests and hobbies outside of science. Mike recalls there were always baseball and soccer teams of scientists, and sports were a great way to bring people together. In addition, having opportunities to travel the world is a great part of being a scientist that people may not immediately associate with the career. In his current lab, Mike enjoys going out to dinner with the group and having social get-togethers as well.
Advice For Us All (39:27)
Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life. Follow your dreams. If you love what you do, you will work hard without realizing it, and this will lead to success.
Mike is an active clinician-scientist and Professor of Neurology, Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. His research has been continuously funded by the NIH for >20 years, with an average of 2-4 active grants per year, 50 publications with ~6,250 citations. Mike’s laboratory focuses on the roles of complex carbohydrates called Asn(N)-linked glycans in cell function and diseases such as autoimmunity, multiple sclerosis (MS), and cancer. His work has revealed how genetic and metabolic regulation of N-glycosylation controls the function and activity of cell surface glycoproteins to affect cell growth/differentiation and diseases such as MS. He has served as a chartered member of two NIH study sections, and he has mentored 14 pre- and post-doctoral fellows and numerous undergraduate students. In addition, he is the Co-Principal Investigator of a KL2 mentored career development award funded by National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences via the Clinical and Translational Science Awards program. Mike has also translated his basic science research discoveries into human clinical studies as Principal Investigator and investigational new drug (IND) holder, is a Principal Investigator for the Biden Cancer Moonshot program, and co-founded two start-up companies.
Support for this episode of People Behind the Science was provided by New England Biolabs, Inc.