It looked like only good things were ahead of Taylor Schreiber in 2010.
Schreiber had just finished his PhD in cancer biology and was preparing to return to medical school to complete his degree. He also had been married a year, and, like any young newlyweds up for adventure, he and his wife Nicki decided to go backpacking in the Costa Rican rainforest.
He was 31, and it was April Fool's Day—but no joke.
During the trip, he experienced a series of night sweats and didn't think too much about it. Schreiber hadn't been feeling right for a few weeks and assumed he had a respiratory infection. Besides, they were sleeping outdoors in a hot, tropical jungle.
But the night sweats continued even after he got home, leaving his mattress so soaked in the morning it was if a bucket of water had been dumped on him overnight. On instinct, he called one of his thesis advisors at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center in Florida and described his symptoms.
Dr. Joseph Rosenblatt didn't hesitate. "It sounds like Hodgkins. Come see me tomorrow," he said.
The next day, Schreiber was diagnosed with Stage 3b Hodgkin Lymphoma, which meant the disease was advanced. He was 31, and it was April Fool's Day—but no joke.
"I was scared to death," he recalls. "[Thank] goodness it's one of those cancers that is highly treatable. But being 31 years old and all of a sudden being told that you have a 30 percent of mortality within the next two years wasn't anything that I was relieved about."
For Schreiber, the diagnosis was a personal and professional game-changer. He couldn't work in the hospital as a medical student while undergoing chemotherapy, so he wound up remaining in his post-doctorate lab for another two years. The experience also solidified his decision to apply his scientific and medical knowledge to drug development.
Today, now 39, Schreiber is co-founder, director and chief scientific officer of Shattuck Labs, an immuno-oncology startup, and the developer of several important research breakthroughs in the field of immunotherapy.
After his diagnosis, he continued working full-time as a postdoc, while undergoing an aggressive chemotherapy regimen.
"These days, I look back on [my cancer] and think it was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me," he says. "In medical school, you learn what it is to treat people and learn about the disease. But there is nothing like being a patient to teach you another side of medicine."
Medicine first called to Schreiber when his maternal grandfather was dying from lung cancer complications. Schreiber's uncle, a radiologist at the medical center where his grandfather was being treated, took him on a tour of his department and showed him images of the insides of his body on an ultrasound machine.
Schreiber was mesmerized. His mother was a teacher and his dad sold windows, so medicine was not something to which he had been routinely exposed.
"This weird device was like looking through jelly, and I thought that was the coolest thing ever," he says.
The experience led him to his first real job at the Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, NH, then to a semester-long internship program during his senior year in high school in Concord Hospital's radiology department.
"This was a great experience, but it also made clear that there was not any meaningful way to learn or contribute to medicine before you obtained a medical degree," says Schreiber, who enrolled in Bucknell College to study biology.
Bench science appealed to him, and he volunteered in Dr. Jing Zhou's nephrology department lab at the Harvard Institutes of Medicine. Under the mentorship of one of her post-docs, Lei Guo, he learned a range of critical techniques in molecular biology, leading to their discovery of a new gene related to human polycystic kidney disease and his first published paper.
Before his cancer diagnosis, Schreiber also volunteered in the lab of Dr. Robert "Doc" Sackstein, a world-renowned bone marrow transplant physician and biomedical researcher, and his interests began to shift towards immunology.
"He was just one of those dynamic people who has a real knack for teaching, first of all, and for inspiring people to want to learn more and ask hard questions and understand experimental medicine," Schreiber says.
It was there that he learned the scientific method and the importance of incorporating the right controls in experiments—a simple idea, but difficult to perform well. He also made what Sackstein calls "a startling discovery" about chemokines, which are signaling proteins that can activate an immune response.
As immune cells travel around our bodies looking for potential sources of infection or disease, they latch onto blood vessel walls and "sniff around" for specific chemical cues that indicate a source of infection. Schreiber and his colleagues designed a system that mimics the blood vessel wall, allowing them to define which chemical cues efficiently drive immune cell migration from the blood into tissues.
Schreiber received the best overall research award in 2008 from the National Student Research Foundation. But even as Schreiber's expertise about immunology grew, his own immune system was about to fight its hardest battle.
After his diagnosis, he continued working full-time as a postdoc in the lab of Eckhard Podack, then chair of the microbiology and immunology department at the University of Miami's Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine.
At the same time, Schreiber began an aggressive intravenous chemotherapy regimen of adriamycin, bleomycin, vincristine and dacarbazine, every two weeks, for 6 months. His wife Nicki, an obgyn, transferred her residency from Emory University in Atlanta to Miami so they could be together.
"It was a weird period. I mean, it made me feel good to keep doing things and not just lay idle," he said. "But by the second cycle of chemo, I was immunosuppressed and losing my hair and wore a face mask walking around the lab, which I was certainly self-conscious. But everyone around me didn't make me feel like an alien so I just went about my business."
The experience reinforced his desire to stay in immunology, especially after having taken the most toxic chemotherapies.
He stayed home the day after chemo when he felt his worst, then rested his body and timed exercise to give the drugs the best shot of targeting sick cells (a strategy, he says, that "could have been voodoo"). He also drank "an incredible" amount of fluids to help flush the toxins out of his system.
Side effects of the chemo, besides hair loss, included intense nausea, diarrhea, a loss of appetite, some severe lung toxicities that eventually resolved, and incredible fatigue.
"I've always been a runner, and I would even try to run while I was doing chemo," he said. "After I finished treatment, I would go literally 150 yards and just have to stop, and it took a lot of effort to work through it."
The experience reinforced his desire to stay in immunology, especially after having taken the most toxic chemotherapies.
"They worked, and I could tolerate them because I was young, but people who are older can't," Schreiber said. "The whole field of immunotherapy has really demonstrated that there are effective therapies out there that don't come with all of the same toxicities as the original chemo, so it was galvanizing to imagine contributing to finding some of those."
Schreiber went on to complete his MD and PhD degrees from the Sheila and David Fuente Program in Cancer Biology at the Miller School of Medicine and was nominated in 2011 as a Future Leader in Cancer Research by the American Association for Cancer Research. He also has numerous publications in the fields of tumor immunology and immunotherapy.
Sackstein, who was struck by Schreiber's enthusiasm and "boundless energy," predicts he will be a "major player in the world of therapeutics."
"The future for Taylor is amazing because he has the capacity to synthesize current knowledge and understand the gaps and then ask the right questions to establish new paradigms," said Sackstein, currently dean of the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine at Florida International University. "It's a very unusual talent."
Since then, he has devoted his career to developing innovative techniques aimed at unleashing the immune system to attack cancer with less toxicity than chemotherapy and better clinical results—first, at a company called Heat Biologics and then at Pelican Therapeutics.
His primary work at Austin, Texas-based Shattuck is aimed at combining two functions in a single therapy for cancer and inflammatory diseases, blocking molecules that put a brake on the immune system (checkpoint inhibitors) while also stimulating the immune system's cancer-killing T cells.
The company has one drug in clinical testing as part of its Agonist Redirected Checkpoint (ARC) platform, which represents a new class of biological medicine. Two others are expected within the next year, with a pipeline of more than 250 drug candidates spanning cancer, inflammatory, and metabolic diseases.
Nine years after his own cancer diagnosis, Schreiber says it remains a huge part of his life, though his chances of a cancer recurrence today are about the same as his chances of getting newly diagnosed with any other cancer.
"I feel blessed to be in a position to help cancer patients live longer and could not imagine a more fulfilling way to spend my life," he says.
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."