URI biotech students to study diseases that killed their parents

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PROVIDENCE – May 10, 2011 – On the September day in 2009 that Brent Palavra was supposed to start classes in the University of Rhode Island’s Biotechnology Manufacturing Program, his mother died of sepsis. Anthony Marcello’s father died of brain cancer while Anthony was just beginning his second semester in the program.

During summer internships this year, these students will try to make something positive from their family tragedies by helping to discover how to cure or treat the diseases that killed their parents.

Palavra, 37, a native of Glocester, worked in construction for 17 years but decided to change careers when the economy took a nosedive and the building industry declined.

“I’ve been interested in molecular biology since a Junior Achievement class in middle school,” Palavra said. “It’s all about helping people, pinpointing the disease, finding ways to fight disease, and it’s my way of helping the community.”

An active member of the Nipmuc Indian tribe and a direct descendant of the first Native American to go to Harvard, Palavra said that diabetes and related illnesses are prevalent in the Native community, and that has helped to focus his career interest.

He will spend his internship working at ProThera Biologics, an East Providence-based company that is studying a protein that fights inflammation and infection in sepsis and other diseases.

“When I heard that, it really hit home considering that was what my mother died from,” said Palavra, referring to a presentation the company’s chief executive made to his class. “I heard that it was going to be difficult to get an internship there, but it worked out.”

Cranston resident Anthony Marcello, 25, was studying to become a nutritionist when he heard about the URI Biotechnology Manufacturing Program.

“I had no idea there were so many biotech companies in the Providence area,” he said, “so I took a chance and I really like it. It really gives you a good perspective on the world.”

The program is an intensive bachelor’s degree program that requires a year of coursework in biology, chemistry, physiology, microbiology and laboratory sciences followed by a summer internship at a local biotech company. Most students enter the workforce after the first year and complete their degree as part-time students.

Marcello said that it’s the frequent speakers and field trips that help to provide the students with connections in the biotechnology industry. “I feel like I know so many companies and can engage in conversation about research and manufacturing and so many other options,” he said.

His internship will be with Wayne Bowen, chairman of the Department of Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology & Biotechnology at Brown University, who studies proteins called sigma receptors that are found throughout the body and bind several classes of psychoactive drugs.

“When I saw that he was researching receptors that are found on tumors, including the type of tumor my dad had, I knew this was the internship for me,” Marcello said. “It will be rewarding contributing to work related to my dad’s illness.”

Like Brent Palavra, Marcello is attracted to biotechnology research in large part because of its role in improving human health.

“I want to be doing something to help people, and that’s what biotechnology is all about,” Marcello said. “I want to be able to look back at what I’ve done and know that I have contributed to humanity.”

URI Department of Communications & Marketing photo by Michael Salerno Photography.