Study the website for the Harvard/MGH Center on Genomics, Vulnerable Populations, and Health Disparities and you’ll find some of what Bobak Seddighzadeh was up to prior to starting his studies at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV.
Bobak Seddighzadeh, is a research associate at the Harvard/MGH Center of Genomics, Vulnerable Populations and Health Disparities. During his graduate work at New York University’s Gallatin School, he studied population and medical genetics and graduated as the valedictorian of his class. Since then, Seddighzadeh has focused his research at the intersection of genomics and health inequity. Now, as project director of the Jamaica Cancer Care & Research Institute (JACCRI), his work includes assisting with the development of a prospective prostate cancer genetics study in Jamaican men and the establishment of national palliative care guidelines for the Ministry of Health of Jamaica.
Yes, Seddighzadeh, now set to graduate with his MD in 2022, already holds an impressive resume. His research has appeared in peer-reviewed journals that include: Epigenomics, BioMedicine, and European Urology. As a member of the medical school’s charter class, he took time in between his second and third years of medical school to pursue additional training in cancer genomics in Dr. Franklin Huang’s lab at the University of California, San Francisco, a physician-scientist whom he met while at Harvard.
Addressing Vaccine Hesitancy
While Seddighzadeh’s focus in Huang's lab was on cancer, during the height of the pandemic, Huang directed his lab’s attention toward understanding COVID-19. “At the time, a trend emerged that men and women contracted COVID at similar rates, yet men were dying at greater proportions relative to women,” said Seddighzadeh. “We investigated publicly available genomic data sets of human lungs to see whether or not there were sex differences between men and women lung cells that would explain this phenomenon. Sure enough, we discovered that men had a greater percentage of lung cells that expressed the receptors that COVID-19 requires to infiltrate our cells.”
Huang and Seddighzadeh also investigated the prostate to see if there is potential for COVID-19 infiltration. “Surprisingly, we discovered that the prostate also possesses the receptor pairs needed for COVID infiltration into the cell, albeit at very small amounts.”
Seddighzadeh stresses that much more research needs to be done before the clinical implications of the research done in Huang’s lab can come to light. As part of his research capstone, Seddighzadeh, with Huang as his mentor, has designed a study to understand the genetic underpinnings of aggressive prostate cancer.
“I am on an authentic journey to learn all that I can,” said Seddighzadeh, who received a full-tuition scholarship to Kerkorian School of Medicine in 2017 courtesy of Dr. Barbara Atkinson, founding dean, and Maureen Schafer, the medical school’s former chief of staff. "I want to lead a life of purpose and for me that means making time to pursue meaningful projects that have great potential to help others through medicine.”
Concerned about vaccine hesitancy, Seddighzadeh has authored a piece for Men’s Health magazine about the safety of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. He also wrote a guest column for the Las Vegas Sun, arguing that the benefits of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine far outweighed the risks of blood clots.
A biology and biochemistry honors graduate of Loyola Marymount University in California, Seddighzadeh completed two years of health disparities research at Charles R Drew/UCLA Medical Education Program prior to going to New York University (NYU) for graduate school. After he graduated from NYU, he received a job offer at Harvard from a renowned researcher he met during graduate school, Dr. Alexandra E. Shields, director of the Harvard/MGH Center of Genomics, Vulnerable Populations, and Health Disparities. At Harvard Medical School, he helped investigate how psychosocial stress modulates our stress circuit (also known as your HPA-axis) to understand how it can influence chronic disease.
“Dr. Shields had a grand vision of helping to establish a world-class cancer institute in Kingston, Jamaica,” said Seddighzadeh. “She was inspired by their unusually high rates of cancer combined with their dramatic need for research and clinical capacity. I had no doubt in my mind that this was an experience that I wanted to be part of. I wanted to contribute to the betterment of conquering cancer, learn how to build organizations and start-ups, as well as partake in an international experience. I was hired by Dr. Shields to be the inaugural project director of the cancer institute and to move to Kingston to help her establish the institute from the ground up. I maintained my role up until my first year of medical school, after which I stepped down to focus on my studies.”
The cancer center in Jamaica is now funded by the National Institutes of Health.
“I hope, in some way or some form, to help UNLV establish its own world-class cancer center and research institute for the city of Las Vegas,” said Seddighzadeh, who believes the future of medicine is in “precision medicine,” or the use of one’s genetic makeup to tailor treatments to that individual.
Seddighzadeh, who lost his father to pancreatic cancer between his second and third years of medical school, said the experience with Dr. Shields and the cancer center “has given me the confidence to be a leader in cancer.”
His parents immigrated from Iran to the U.S. to give their children better opportunities in life. They moved from California to Las Vegas four years before Seddighzadeh started medical school. “My father and mother were the yin and yang of my development. My father was a serial entrepreneur — very logical, meticulous, and hard-working. From him, I learned the value of discipline and persistence. He instilled in me a growth mindset — that I can accomplish anything that I choose as long as I keep learning, work hard, and persist through setbacks. My mother was a clinical psychologist. She gave me values of ethics, simplicity, caring, and doing right by others, and to be generous. She instilled in me emotional intelligence and awareness. I think it’s the unique combination of their skills that has given me a foundation to hopefully make strides as a great doctor for my patients and as a leader for my community.”
Education was always stressed in Seddighzadeh’s family. “In middle school, I remember I nearly brought my mother to tears when I brought home a 'B' because she knew that I was capable of more.”
Seddighzadeh’s favorite question growing up was “Why?”
“I remember when I was 8 years old I wanted to understand how electricity works, so I read a book called, How Things Work. The book explained physical principles and phenomenon of how various objects from light bulbs to nuclear bombs work. In the seventh grade, I read my sister’s high school physics book during the summer to better understand natural phenomena. Then in high school, I read books on nutrition, and I learned how the endocrine system and our health are affected by our dietary decisions.”
To this day, the physician-scientist Seddighzadeh admires most is the late Dr. Jonas Salk. “I admire Dr. Salk’s ambition for utilizing his training as a physician and scientist to find a cure for polio, and then helping to launch one of the most successful vaccine campaigns in history. Even more admirable was his decision not to patent the vaccine in order to make it accessible to the world. I’m inspired by this intellect, selflessness, and commitment to further medicine, and I hope to achieve the same one day.”
He plans on completing a residency in internal medicine so he can pursue a fellowship that allows him to fulfill his dream of becoming a hematologist-oncologist. He said his dad’s death from pancreatic cancer had much to do with his choice of medical specialty.
“I have been called upon to become a physician-scientist because, currently, we need better answers for many of our patients. For example, mesothelioma, pancreatic cancer, and brain cancers all have under 12 percent five-year survival rates,” Seddighzadeh said. “I want to use my clinical grounding to treat my patients, their stories to inspire new research in the laboratory, and the findings of my research to help heal my patients in more effective ways. The future of medicine can only advance if we continue to pick up and move the yardstick.”