After graduating from Stanford at age 19 in 1995, Houman Hemmati
enrolled at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, where he now
conducts groundbreaking research with pediatric brain tumors.
As a student in the joint master’s/doctorate program
shared by UCLA and the California Institute of Technology, Hemmati
is finishing up his seventh and last year of doctoral research. The
dual degree program consists of two years of medical school at
UCLA, then five years of doctoral research, followed by the final
two years of medical school.
Upon coming to UCLA, Hemmati worked with Jorge Lazareff, the
director of pediatric neurosurgery. After noticing that brain
tumors in children tend to arise from the center of the brain
““ as opposed to adult tumors, which can arise anywhere — the
two were interested in studying the observation further.
The phenomenon also attracted the interest of Harley Kornblum,
an associate professor in the departments of molecular and medical
pharmacology and pediatrics, and one of the world’s leading
experts on brain stem cell development.
After receiving a $30,000 grant from the Jonsson Cancer Center,
the members of this diverse team of scientists joined other
colleagues in contributing their time and efforts to find an answer
to Hemmati’s question.
“I’m just a student, a complete nobody, but everyone
came together to help us out,” Hemmati said, in praise of the
In response to its limited budget, the team decided to utilize a
plentiful resource on campus ““ undergraduate students.
One of the undergraduates involved is Ben Rafii, a fourth-year
molecular, cell and developmental biology student.
Rafii, who is graduating this quarter, plans to take a year off
to conduct further research before applying to medical school. He
usually works between 10 and 20 hours a week on his research.
“The best part of research is the excitement of
discovering something no one else has previously known,”
Rafii said. “You’re introducing new knowledge into the
Rafii also said he enjoyed the egalitarian atmosphere present in
the research laboratory.
“The boss-student relationship is blurred. I get to boss
Houman around once in awhile,” he said jokingly.
With the help of these undergraduates, the researchers have
found strong evidence suggesting pediatric brain tumors are the
result of mutated stem cells.
Though these stem cells are believed to only compose a small
percentage of the total size of the tumor, they create the tumor by
It is known that mutated stem cells cause other types of cancer,
notably breast cancer and leukemia, but the causes of pediatric
brain tumors have been unclear.
“I consider Houman my older brother, my best friend and my
mentor,” said Simon Bababeygy, a current research assistant
who graduated winter quarter with a degree in neuroscience.
While a UCLA student, Bababeygy usually worked 15 to 20 hours a
week in the laboratory. He is heading to Stanford medical school in
Bababeygy said he feels the research has made him a better
scientist, and it has been a privilege to work with such talented
coworkers as Hemmati.
“I can see (Hemmati) getting a Nobel Prize in the
future,” Bababeygy said.
The results of the research could have implications in both the
treatment and diagnosis of pediatric tumors.
“After I published my paper, everyone was patting me and
the professors on the back, but really, it was the undergraduate
students that helped make this all possible,” Hemmati
If the researchers can determine which gene causes the stem
cells to mutate, they could potentially develop drugs to inhibit
the gene from producing these cancer-causing cells.
This approach is superior to chemotherapy because it will only
affect the target cells, while chemotherapy also kills healthy
cells. Additionally, though chemotherapy does kill the existing
stem cells, the treatment does not prevent the tumor from
“What’s nice about this research is that we have no
idea where things are going to go. I know where I want them to go,
but in science you just never know what’s going to
happen,” Hemmati said. “That’s what makes it fun
Students interested in participating in Hemmati’s
research can contact him about open positions at