Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Kameron Kooshesh ’12
Story by Kathy McPherson

The fight against cancer is what drives Dr. Kameron Kooshesh’s career as a young doctor. And cancer is what brought the 2012 Durham Academy graduate from California to Duke Medical Center for treatment when he was a preteen, leading him to enroll as a part-time student at DA as an eighth-grader.

“I was out of school for sixth grade and seventh grade. My parents were teaching me while I was in the hospital,” Kooshesh said. “All I wanted was to go back to school and have friends again, be a normal kid again.”

When his parents inquired about the possibility of Kooshesh attending Durham Academy, the school welcomed him, encouraging him to come when he was able and do what he could. Kooshesh has never forgotten what that meant to him and how it impacted his life.

“It was so much fun,” the newly minted medical doctor said as he remembered his eighth-grade self. “I got to know the community, how nice the students were, how incredibly welcoming the teachers were. There was nothing like the intellectual rigor that I encountered in [DA] Middle School — California was far different. It was such an incredible community, so obviously I wanted to stay for high school.

“When I got to the Upper School, I found immediate groups of friends that have still stuck with me throughout life. People who were extremely interested in math, science, history, and that was fostered and truly taken to its fullest extent by the wonderful teachers and advisors I had.”

Coming to Durham Academy marked the resumption of a life that had been cruelly interrupted.

Kooshesh was 9 and about to finish third grade when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He endured three years of chemotherapy with good results in California, then suffered a relapse just as he was completing treatment. His prognosis was poor until his family learned Kooshesh was a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant. They decided to bring him to Duke for the transplant and Kooshesh was doing well until he developed graft-versus-host disease, a life-threatening complication with the immune system of the bone marrow donor fighting with the body of the bone marrow recipient.

When steroids were not an effective treatment, Kooshesh’s Duke transplant doctor was left with few options. Knowing there was an ongoing national trial of a treatment that might help, she appealed to the FDA for a compassionate-use exemption of the drug remestemcel-L, an experimental stem cell treatment. The request was approved, and the stem cells Kooshesh was given calmed the debilitating inflammation the graft-versus-host disease was causing. The infusion of stem cells gave 14-year-old Kooshesh back his life, piquing an interest in stem cells and setting him on a path to becoming a hematology oncologist .

“That’s cutting-edge science that is really exciting, and demonstrates the promise of stem cell therapeutics treating and advancing the standard of care in areas in which we are relatively still in the Paleozoic area. It was really ahead of its time when I had it, and it’s still very much cutting edge,” Kooshesh said of stem cell therapeutics.

“That experience, that idea that you could have an impact as both a scientist and a physician in somebody's life and save them. This was the difference between life and death for me, as called by my transplant physician, and was something that isn't widely available yet. It worked for me, but not other people. And so why was that? I really wanted to understand about this and also learn about and be able to contribute myself to the stem cell therapeutics that could be so life-changing.”

As a Harvard College undergraduate, Kooshesh’s studies concentrated on human developmental and regenerative biology, which he said “essentially equates to stem cell biology.”

And after graduating from Harvard cum laude in 2016, Kooshesh’s interest in stem cell therapeutics spurred him to take gap years between undergraduate and medical school. He spent two years working on a project about the cell cycle at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, focused on “how different cells essentially go through division, and how that can become cancerous. I was developing a new way of thinking about how cancer cells divide, and what we can do to interfere in that process and therefore prevent cancer from spreading.”

The interest continued through Kooshesh’s four years in the prestigious Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology, a collaboration that had him taking an intensive class load at Harvard Medical School along with basic science classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Essentially you do a Ph.D.’s amount of learning and also a medical degree at the same time,” Kooshesh explained.

He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Medical School on May 25, with a soon-to-be published senior thesis on how the immune system ages as people age, why that happens and what can be done about it. In a thesis project overseen by Dr. David Scadden, a hematologist/oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, Kooshesh “conducted a retrospective cohort study of thousands of patients in the Harvard health care system to understand how people encounter more malignancies, more autoimmune diseases as they age and why that is. And we linked that to an organ that is very poorly studied in human biology, the thymus.”

Kooshesh saw that immune cells are severely abnormal in patients who do not have a functioning thymus. “That points to an understanding of why it is that the immune system ages at different paces in different people, and why that can predispose someone to developing a malignancy later in life or developing an autoimmune condition later in life,” he explained.

A second part of the study identified a cell in the thymus that is somewhat like a stem cell. “What we are trying to do is develop a stem cell therapeutic to essentially rejuvenate, regenerate the thymus in people as they age, that prevents them from developing malignancy, prevents them from developing autoimmune conditions.”

Kooshesh said his work in the lab of Dr. Scadden “is applying the basic principles of stem cell biology to hematologic malignancy, to understanding cancers like they are errant stem cells, and building our framework for how to then treat those cancers like stem cells gone wrong. That is such an exciting and groundbreaking means of looking at cancer, and from that understanding how we can use stem cells to treat hematologic malignancies.”

The driving passion he feels for his work links back to remestemcel-L, the experimental stem cell treatment he received at Duke in 2009 for graft-versus-host disease. Kooshesh’s transplant physician asked him to speak at an August 2020 FDA hearing that led to the drug being approved and becoming widely available. “It’s really one of the frontline therapies on the market. It's such an incredibly game-changing therapeutic because it demonstrates the power of stem cells in treating this kind of disease,” Kooshesh said in explaining the drug’s significance.

Kooshesh said medicine is doing incredible things for children, like his transplant physician did in advocating for him to get stem cell therapy, “and I want to make sure that we can do the same kinds of miracles for adults as well.”

That path will take Kooshesh through three years of internal medicine residency at Massachusetts General Hospital and then a fellowship in hematology oncology. He will be 33 years old when he finishes his training and is an attending physician in hematology oncology.

“My hope is also to be involved in research like I am now — in both clinical research and basic science research — and a lot of that passion was spurred out of my DA days,” he said.

Kooshesh said it was Durham Academy teachers who inspired a love of Latin language and Greek and Roman tradition in classical literature, who gave him an incredible grasp of the humanities, who encouraged him to do an independent study in biology, who whetted his interest in music and photography, who served as a father figure when his own dad needed to stay in California.

“That is something that has stuck with me and is very important. The way that you can conceive of and solve big problems is to really take a step back and think philosophically about the problem, to think about these things in both a human, as well as a philosophical, problem and that you apply to the science,” Kooshesh said.

“And that keeps you seeing it as something that is not just a nuts-and-bolts problem that nobody outside of the field can understand, but makes it immediately human and immediately relevant for improving the lives of people because that’s the goal of our science and that's the distinct honor of being a doctor.”