Dr. Sanaz Memarzadeh: Patients drive UCLA gynecologic oncologist's determination to discover new therapies


Watch UCLA's Dr. Sanaz Memarzadeh discuss her passion for cancer research and discovering new treatments for women's cancers

As a child, instead of playing in the sand or hanging on monkey bars, Dr. Sanaz Memarzadeh was more interested in exploring the hospital wards where her parents worked. This experience allowed her to catch a glimpse into the world of medicine and what it meant to heal patients at an early age.

Growing up in Iran and later in Pennsylvania after her family immigrated to the United States, Memarzadeh’s early interest in science and medicine was rooted in a family of healthcare professionals. Her father, now retired, was a physician and her mother a nurse. Memarzadeh’s father pushed her to develop her innate sense of scientific inquiry.

“My father saw my passion for science and encouraged me to become a scientist instead of a physician,” said Memarzadeh, a member of UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. Despite his encouragement, she could not ignore her desire to treat people.

Dr. Sanaz Memarzadeh

Memarzadeh’s path toward medicine initiated at the University of Pittsburgh where she studied neuroscience.  She worked in a research lab studying neurons and performed very intricate measurements on cells using a technique called patch-clamping. The “hands-on” experience sparked a life-long passion of studying the human body.

After graduating from college, Memarzadeh decided to attend medical school at the same university where she completed her undergraduate studies. She knew that she wanted to be a surgeon, an interest that was sparked by working in a transplantation lab over the summer.  After completing her first year of medical school, she received an opportunity to participate in a project to determine if pancreatic islet cells grown in the lab could be used to treat patients with  diabetes. Spending time in that laboratory reignited Memarzadeh’s passion for research, which prompted her to become both a clinician diagnosing and treating patients and a laboratory scientist.

Upon completing medical school, she applied for residency at UCLA because of the institution’s leading-edge research and its commitment to innovative techniques to save lives. While on campus, she was determined to find a new, more effective therapy for women diagnosed with the most aggressive form of gynecologic disease, ovarian cancer.

“I have personally seen how brave these women are, from the moment they’re diagnosed with such an aggressive cancer, to how they cope with this disease on a day-to-day basis,” says Memarzadeh who is a surgeon and professor of obstetrics and gynecology. “I knew immediately that these were the patients that I wanted to care for.”

The next chapter of Memarzadeh’s training continued after she enrolled in a three-year gynecologic cancer fellowship at UCLA while simultaneously completing a Ph.D. program in the laboratory of renown cancer researcher Owen Witte.  All of her educational training and patient experience allowed her to fulfill a lifelong dream of starting her surgical practice at UCLA and the Gynecologic Oncology (G.O.) Discovery Laboratory to investigate endometrial and ovarian carcinoma, which are two of the most poorly understood and under-studied gynecologic cancers.

Memarzadeh’s patients have had a profound influence on both her medical practice and her research. “My patients motivate me on a daily basis. I see them as members of my family and they drive my unwavering dedication to both clinical care and research,” Memarzadeh said. “It frustrates me that treatments for reproductive cancers, particularly ovarian cancer, have not progressed significantly in decades. That’s why being a surgeon and scientist is critically important in this field of research, so that we can eventually find a life-saving treatment that will one day cure this disease.”

Click here for more information about the G.O. Discovery Lab. You can also follow Dr. Memarzadeh’s work on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at @golabnow.

— Reggie Kumar, 2017