Surgeon and Scientist Electron Kebebew Makes His Mark

By Jeff Miller, UCSF Science Cafe | May 10, 2007

Naming a child can sometimes stamp a child.

So is it any wonder what an Ethiopian electrical engineer had in mind when he named his son Electron?

But while engineering may have been in the boy's blood, this youngest of five children -- with siblings named Positron, Neutron, Deutron and Proton -- grew up to have medicine in his heart.

Now, as a UCSF endocrine surgeon and a research scientist, Electron Kebebew, MD, operates on both bodies and genes. He has become, well, a force, a man on the move, someone who commands attention as he strides the hallways of UCSF Medical Center at Mount Zion.

"When you have a name like Electron, people notice you, and they have expectations of you," he says. "But by and large, as I think back on my life, my name has been a positive influence."

Positivism is what the 39-year-old Kebebew exudes. And why not? The former UCSF resident embodies the renewed bench-to-bedside spirit of today's medicine.

"Translational medicine is the term that best describes my life right now," says Kebebew, who has not one, but two clinical trials underway at UCSF's Comprehensive Cancer Center. One pivots around his research into the genetic signatures of endocrine tumors. The second examines how to make aggressive thyroid cancer more responsive to treatment.

"Chemotherapy doesn't work for most patients with aggressive thyroid cancer," Kebebew explains. "And radioiodine treatment doesn't work either because thyroid cancer cells don't capture iodine like normal thyroid cells do. What we're now testing is a diabetes drug, called rosiglitazone, which causes cancer cells to re-express the gene that takes up iodine. What is unique and exciting about the approach is that we're not using cytotoxic drugs to kill cancer. We're just retraining the cell to do something it has lost the ability to do.

(Note that in November 2007 the UCSF Comprehensive Cancer Center was renamed the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.)

Read more at Jeff Miller, UCSF Science Cafe