Ray Bateman Jr. Has No Need of a Paper Route; His After-School Job Is Chemotherapy Research

updated 11/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Like a lot of other ninth-grade boys at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, Calif., 14-year-old Ray Bateman Jr. loves horror movies, pizza and the Pet Shop Boys. He pleads guilty to the standard teenage sin of shirking homework (especially French, which he says he hates "almost as much as P.E."). What separates Bateman from his peers, however, is his stunningly precocious alibi: "If you did 1,300 hours of medical research over the last nine months, you wouldn't have much time to do your studies either."

Last month Bateman lost a little more study time when he and his mentor, Dr. Glenn Tisman, a 46-year-old cancer and blood-disease specialist, flew to New York to present the results of their work to a meeting of the American Federation for Clinical Research. As Tisman watched proudly from the floor, Bateman stood at the lectern, bathed in the glow of TV lights. Calmly, in a still-boyish voice, he told how he and Dr. Tisman had taken a long-neglected chemotherapy drug, combined it with a vitamin derivative and discovered that it was more effective against certain kinds of tumors, particularly of the colon, than the drug that is currently used. Moreover, he reported, their compound caused fewer and milder side effects. "I thought it was a good study," said Dr. Victor Herbert, a professor of medicine at Mount Sinai medical school in New York. "He did as well as any research fellow twice his age would have done."

Bateman first met Dr. Tisman five years ago when the doctor's son, Terry, now 14, invited Ray over for dinner. Their collaboration was launched one night last year when the elder Tisman grumbled to Bateman that two technicians had been unable to get his elaborate new stereo system working. "Ray looked at it, and 13 hours later it was al done," Tisman recalls. "I knew he was very intelligent, but this was the first inkling I had that his mind worked differently from everyone else's."

In fact, Bateman had virtually never met a machine he couldn't fix. His parents say that when he was 4, he tore apart his mother's broken vacuum cleaner and put it back together in perfect working order. At 10, he built a color TV from a kit in significantly less time than the adult manual suggested. ("Hasn't missed a day," says Dad proudly, indicating the still-functioning set in the living room.) Even before Ray had established his credentials with the Tismans' stereo system, he had begun talking medicine with Terry's father. "I would go there to see Terry and end up spending more time with his father," Bateman says. "I could understand what Dr. Tisman was saying even though I had had no prior education in medicine or chemistry. It's really strange. I know a lot, but I have no idea how I got to know it."

Needing a science project for school about a year ago, Bateman asked Tisman if he had any ideas. In fact, the doctor had just ordered a $65,000 blood-testing device called a High Performance Liquid Chromatography apparatus (HPLC) to test his hypothesis that a certain out-of-use chemotherapy drug, known as 5-FUdR, might yet prove more effective and safer than the cheaper drug that had come to replace it, a compound known as 5-FU. Tisman had neither the time nor the technical facility to set up the sensitive machinery. So he suggested that Bateman borrow the 1,000 pages of HPLC manuals to see if he could make sense of them. A week later Bateman got back to him. "I'm ready," he said. "Let's go."

At Tisman's lab in nearby Whittier, Bateman began setting up the six-foot-long, two-foot-wide computerized system. Tisman began testing the 5-FUdR, tempered with a vitamin derivative called leucovorin, on a group of seven patients with cancers of the colon, breast, bladder or lung. Within several weeks, most patients' tumors had shrunk, some dramatically and others to a lesser extent. After school, Bateman would keep the HPLC humming and help analyze the test results. "He came up with good theories on how to do this," says Tisman. "There's no doubt; it's really a collaboration."

The teamwork was particularly gratifying to Bateman because as a child he had done poorly in school. "He was bored," says Ray Sr., 62, a retired Bechtel executive. "He wasn't getting along with his peers, and he thought he was really stupid. We took him to a psychologist when he was 7, and Ray tested out in math above the 98th percentile. We started working on him to feel better about himself, and he responded."

At home in Huntington Beach, Bate-man's room is filled with computer and stereo gear, tape recorders, modems, a VCR and medical books. Next to his encyclopedia set is a plush stuffed toy in the shape of a couch potato. "My dad," he says with a laugh.

A month after presenting his first paper, Bateman is back in the lab continuing the 5-FUdR experiment. By the time Ray graduates from high school in 1992, clinical trials may be completed that could lead to worldwide use of the drug treatment. Bateman, who has maintained a B-plus average while taking all honors courses during the project, says he would eventually like to be a doctor or go into medical research. But he still has algebra, calculus and basic chemistry to get through first, not to mention—yeccch!—that dreaded P.E.

—Susan Reed, and David Lustig in Huntington Beach

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