Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) Master of Science in Translational Medicine (MSTM) student Eemon Tizpa, MSTM ’20, was destined to be a doctor. In fact, Tizpa, whose father and mother emigrated from Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War respectively, says that given his cultural heritage, it was almost inevitable.
“Within my family, there’s really only three things my parents wanted me to become—either a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer—and in that hierarchy,” Tizpa said. “From a young age, my parents influenced me to become a doctor. I guess through repetition and through rehearsal, you start saying it over and over again, and you start believing it.”
However, he wasn’t aware of the full spectrum of what the medical profession had to offer until, as an undergraduate at Pitzer College, he entered KGI’s two-week Summer Explore Health Professions program. There he met Dr. Joon Kim, senior director and instructor of Postbaccalaureate programs, who helped shape his path towards a medical career.
A love of science plus an interest in compassionate medicine put Tizpa on the fence. He was torn between a career in research and one in clinical medical practice.
Tizpa soon discovered through KGI’s MSTM program that he could have the best of both worlds. He could work directly with patients while using research to keep up-to-date with precision technology and innovative approaches to personalized medicine.
When deciding what project to focus on at KGI, Tizpa leaned toward stem-cell research to fight diabetes and cancer. However, after interning at City of Hope and meeting Dr. Ammar Ahmed Chaudhry, a radiologist, Tizpa discovered a new niche.
Chaudhry thought Tizpa would be a good fit to spearhead research on an investigative drug to prevent the spread of melanoma metastasis to the brain. Melanoma is an aggressive skin cancer often derived from UV exposure.
While many drugs and therapies exist for these melanomas, five-year survival rates drop nearly 70% when melanomas metastasize into other parts of the body. Melanoma Brain Metastasis (MBM) is one of the most lethal and painful of them all.
Chaudhry and Tizpa saw that many existing treatments were ineffective or inefficient. They soon discovered how epithelial–mesenchymal transition (EMT) allows invasive cancer tissues to migrate to organs by evading immune response.
Recognizing the potential for EMT to be hijacked in one direction, they decided to target AXL, a receptor tyrosine kinase (RTK) protein involved in cancer progression and EMT, to stop the activation and reduce the ability of cancer cells to evade the immune system. A new drug under the name of Compound 21 could downregulate AXL activity, stopping melanoma from metastasizing, and stabilize the cancer, helping the body’s immune system to ward off the attack.
Tizpa cites the metaphor of dominoes falling.
“If Compound 21 can stop the domino effect—the first domino of AXL from falling to cancer metastasis—it can give the immune system a fighting chance,” Tizpa said.
In January, Tizpa presented an award-winning poster on Compound 21 at KGI’s Research Symposium. As he prepares for a career as a physician, he plans to integrate his deep interest in stem cell research with methods to combat cancer.
Tizpa credits several faculty members for his success at KGI, particularly MSTM directors Dr. Anastasia Levitin and Dr. Yilun Liu. Levitin inspired his drive toward becoming a physician and clinician scientist, and Liu helped to hone his lab techniques.
Professor Dr. Animesh Ray was the spark of inspiration in fighting cancer, particularly with his unique and exciting lectures on biomarkers. Associate Professor Dr. Mikhail Shilman was a member of Tizpa’s thesis committee who gave brilliant advice on the scope of drug development.
“Each one played a distinct role in helping me grow and teaching me how to tell a story about my work in cancer research so that future generations and non-scientists can become educated,” Tizpa said.