Man Who Got the First Fecal Transplant to Cure Melanoma Shares His Experience
Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.
"I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads," Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.
A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 85,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. and more than 8,000 die of the cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two peaks in diagnosis of melanoma; one is in younger women ages 30-40 and often is tied to past use of tanning beds; the second is older men 60+ and is related to outdoor activity from farming to sports. Light-skinned people have a twenty-times greater risk of melanoma than do people with dark skin.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" --Diwakar Davar.
Jamie had a follow up PET scan about six months after his surgery. A suspicious spot on his lung led to a biopsy that came back positive for melanoma. The cancer had spread. Treatment with a monoclonal antibody (nivolumab/Opdivo®) didn't prove effective and he was referred to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh, a four-hour drive from his home in western Ohio.
An alternative monoclonal antibody treatment brought on such bad side effects, diarrhea as often as 15 times a day, that it took more than a week of hospitalization to stabilize his condition. The only options left were experimental approaches in clinical trials.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" with a cure rate in the single digits, says Diwakar Davar, 39, an oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center who specializes in skin cancer. That began to change in 2010 with introduction of the first immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, to treat cancer. The antibodies attach to PD-1, a receptor on the surface of T cells of the immune system and on cancer cells. Antibody treatment boosted the melanoma cure rate to about 30 percent. The search was on to understand why some people responded to these drugs and others did not.
At the same time, there was a growing understanding of the role that bacteria in the gut, the gut microbiome, plays in helping to train and maintain the function of the body's various immune cells. Perhaps the bacteria also plays a role in shaping the immune response to cancer therapy.
One clue came from genetically identical mice. Animals ordered from different suppliers sometimes responded differently to the experiments being performed. That difference was traced to different compositions of their gut microbiome; transferring the microbiome from one animal to another in a process known as fecal transplant (FMT) could change their responses to disease or treatment.
When researchers looked at humans, they found that the patients who responded well to immunotherapies had a gut microbiome that looked like healthy normal folks, but patients who didn't respond had missing or reduced strains of bacteria.
Davar and his team knew that FMT had a very successful cure rate in treating the gut dysbiosis of Clostridioides difficile, a persistant intestinal infection, and they wondered if a fecal transplant from a patient who had responded well to cancer immunotherapy treatment might improve the cure rate of patients who did not originally respond to immunotherapies for melanoma.
The ABCDE of melanoma detection
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?" Jamie first thought when the hypothesis was explained to him. But Davar's explanation that the procedure might restore some of the beneficial bacterial his gut was lacking, convinced him to try. He quickly signed on in October 2018 to be the first person in the clinical trial.
Fecal donations go through the same safety procedures of screening for and inactivating diseases that are used in processing blood donations to make them safe for transfusion. The procedure itself uses a standard hollow colonoscope designed to screen for colon cancer and remove polyps. The transplant is inserted through the center of the flexible tube.
Most patients are sedated for procedures that use a colonoscope but Jamie doesn't respond to those drugs: "You can't knock me out. I was watching them on the TV going up my own butt. It was kind of unreal at that point," he says. "There were about twelve people in there watching because no one had seen this done before."
A test two weeks after the procedure showed that the FMT had engrafted and the once-missing bacteria were thriving in his gut. More importantly, his body was responding to another monoclonal antibody (pembrolizumab/Keytruda®) and signs of melanoma began to shrink. Every three months he made the four-hour drive from home to Pittsburgh for six rounds of treatment with the antibody drug.
"We were very, very lucky that the first patient had a great response," says Davar. "It allowed us to believe that even though we failed with the next six, we were on the right track. We just needed to tweak the [fecal] cocktail a little better" and enroll patients in the study who had less aggressive tumor growth and were likely to live long enough to complete the extensive rounds of therapy. Six of 15 patients responded positively in the pilot clinical trial that was published in the journal Science.
Davar believes they are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of why some patients initially do not respond to immunotherapy but later can with a FMT. It is tied to the background level of inflammation produced by the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system. That paper is not yet published.
It has been almost a year since the last in his series of cancer treatments and Jamie has no measurable disease. He is cautiously optimistic that his cancer is not simply in remission but is gone for good. "I'm still scared every time I get my scans, because you don't know whether it is going to come back or not. And to realize that it is something that is totally out of my control."
"It was hard for me to regain trust" after being misdiagnosed and mistreated by several doctors he says. But his experience at Hillman helped to restore that trust "because they were interested in me, not just fixing the problem."
He is grateful for the support provided by family and friends over the last eight years. After a pause and a sigh, the ruggedly built 47-year-old says, "If everyone else was dead in my family, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
"I never hesitated to ask a question and I never hesitated to get a second opinion." But Jamie acknowledges the experience has made him more aware of the need for regular preventive medical care and a primary care physician. That person might have caught his melanoma at an earlier stage when it was easier to treat.
Davar continues to work on clinical studies to optimize this treatment approach. Perhaps down the road, screening the microbiome will be standard for melanoma and other cancers prior to using immunotherapies, and the FMT will be as simple as swallowing a handful of freeze-dried capsules off the shelf rather than through a colonoscopy. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral fecal microbiota product for C. difficile, hopefully paving the way for more.
An older version of this hit article was first published on May 18, 2021
The science of slowing down aging - even if you're not a tech billionaire
Earlier this year, Harvard scientists reported that they used an anti-aging therapy to reverse blindness in elderly mice. Several other studies in the past decade have suggested that the aging process can be modified, at least in lab organisms. Considering mice and humans share virtually the same genetic makeup, what does the rodent-based study mean for the humans?
In truth, we don’t know. Maybe nothing.
What we do know, however, is that a growing number of people are dedicating themselves to defying the aging process, to turning back the clock – the biological clock, that is. Take Bryan Johnson, a man who is less mouse than human guinea pig. A very wealthy guinea pig.
The 45-year-old venture capitalist spends over $2 million per year reversing his biological clock. To do this, he employs a team of 30 medical doctors and other scientists. His goal is to eventually reset his biological clock to age 18, and “have all of his major organs — including his brain, liver, kidneys, teeth, skin, hair, penis and rectum — functioning as they were in his late teens,” according to a story earlier this year in the New York Post.
But his daily routine paints a picture that is far from appealing: for example, rigorously adhering to a sleep schedule of 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. and consuming more than 100 pills and precisely 1,977 calories daily. Considering all of Johnson’s sacrifices, one discovers a paradox:
To live forever, he must die a little every day until he reaches his goal - if he ever reaches his goal.
Less extreme examples seem more helpful for people interested in happy, healthy aging. Enter Chris Mirabile, a New Yorker who says on his website, SlowMyAge.com, that he successfully reversed his biological age by 13.6 years, from the chronological age of 37.2 to a biological age of 23.6. To put this achievement in perspective, Johnson, to date, has reversed his biological clock by 2.5 years.
Mirabile's habits and overall quest to turn back the clock trace back to a harrowing experience at age 16 during a school trip to Manhattan, when he woke up on the floor with his shirt soaked in blood.
Mirabile, who is now 38, supports his claim with blood tests that purport to measure biological age by assessing changes to a person’s epigenome, or the chemical marks that affect how genes are expressed. Mirabile’s tests have been run and verified independently by the same scientific lab that analyzes Johnson’s. (In an email to Leaps.org, the lab, TruDiagnostic, confirmed Mirabile’s claims about his test results.)
There is considerable uncertainty among scientists about the extent to which these tests can accurately measure biological age in individuals. Even so, Mirabile’s results are intriguing. They could reflect his smart lifestyle for healthy aging.
His habits and overall quest to turn back the clock trace back to a harrowing experience at age 16 during a school trip to Manhattan, when Mirabile woke up on the floor with his shirt soaked in blood. He’d severed his tongue after a seizure. He later learned it was caused by a tumor the size of a golf ball. As a result, “I found myself contemplating my life, what I had yet to experience, and mortality – a theme that stuck with me during my year of recovery and beyond,” Mirabile told me.
For the next 15 years, he researched health and biology, integrating his learnings into his lifestyle. Then, in his early 30s, he came across an article in the journal Cell, "The Hallmarks of Aging," that outlined nine mechanisms of the body that define the aging process. Although the paper says there are no known interventions to delay some of these mechanisms, others, such as inflammation, struck Mirabile as actionable. Reading the paper was his “moment of epiphany” when it came to the areas where he could assert control to maximize his longevity.
He also wanted “to create a resource that my family, friends, and community could benefit from in the short term,” he said. He turned this knowledge base into a company called NOVOS dedicated to extending lifespan.
His longevity advice is more accessible than Johnson’s multi-million dollar approach, as Mirabile spends a fraction of that amount. Mirabile takes one epigenetic test per year and has a gym membership at $45 per month. Unlike Johnson, who takes 100 pills per day, Mirabile takes 10, costing another $45 monthly, including a B-complex, fish oil, Vitamins D3 and K2, and two different multivitamin supplements.
Mirabile’s methods may be easier to apply in other ways as well, since they include activities that many people enjoy anyway. He’s passionate about outdoor activities, travels frequently, and has loving relationships with friends and family, including his girlfriend and collie.
Here are a few of daily routines that could, he thinks, contribute to his impressively young bio age:
After waking at 7:45 am, he immediately drinks 16 ounces of water, with 1/4 teaspoon of sodium and potassium to replenish electrolytes. He takes his morning vitamins, brushes and flosses his teeth, puts on a facial moisturizing sunblock and goes for a brisk, two-mile walk in the sun. At 8:30 am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays he lift weights, focusing on strength and power, especially in large muscle groups.
Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays are intense cardio days. He runs 5-7 miles or bicycles for 60 minutes first thing in the morning at a brisk pace, listening to podcasts. Sunday morning cardio is more leisurely.
After working out each day, he’s back home at 9:20 am, where he makes black coffee, showers, then applies serum and moisturizing sunblock to his face. He works for about three hours on his laptop, then has a protein shake and fruit.
Mirabile is a dedicated intermittent faster, with a six hour eating window in between 18 hours fasts. At 3 pm, he has lunch. The Mediterranean lineup often features salmon, sardines, olive oil, pink Himalayan salt plus potassium salt for balance, and lots of dried herbs and spices. He almost always finishes with 1/3 to 1/2 bar of dark chocolate.
If you are what you eat, Mirabile is made of mostly plants and lean meats. He follows a Mediterranean diet full of vegetables, fruits, fatty fish and other meats full of protein and unsaturated fats. “These may cost more than a meal at an American fast-food joint, but then again, not by much,” he said. Each day, he spends $25 on all his meals combined.
At 6 pm, he takes the dog out for a two-mile walk, taking calls for work or from family members along the way. At 7 pm, he dines with his girlfriend. Like lunch, this meal is heavy on widely available ingredients, including fish, fresh garlic, and fermented food like kimchi. Mirabile finishes this meal with sweets, like coconut milk yogurt with cinnamon and clove, some stevia, a mix of fresh berries and cacao nibs.
If Mirabile's epigenetic tests are accurate, his young biological age could be thanks to his healthy lifestyle, or it could come from a stroke of luck if he inherited genes that protect against aging.
At 8 pm, he wraps up work duties and watches shows with his girlfriend, applies serum and moisturizer yet again, and then meditates with the lights off. This wind-down, he said, improves his sleep quality. Wearing a sleep mask and earplugs, he’s asleep by about 10:30.
“I’ve achieved stellar health outcomes, even after having had the physiological stressors of a brain tumor, without spending a fortune,” Mirabile said. “In fact, even during times when I wasn’t making much money as a startup founder with few savings, I still managed to live a very healthy, pro-longevity lifestyle on a modest budget.”
Mirabile said living a cleaner, healthier existence is a reality that many readers can achieve. It’s certainly true that many people live in food deserts and have limited time for exercise or no access to gyms, but James R. Doty, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford, thinks many can take more action to stack the odds that they’ll “be happy and live longer.” Many of his recommendations echo aspects of Mirabile’s lifestyle.
Each night, Doty said, it’s vital to get anywhere between 6-8 hours of good quality sleep. Those who sleep less than 6 hours per night are at an increased risk of developing a whole host of medical problems, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and stroke.
In addition, it’s critical to follow Mirabile’s prescription of exercise for about one hour each day, and intensity levels matter. Doty noted that, in 2017, researchers at Brigham Young University found that people who ran at a fast pace for 30-40 minutes five days per week were, on average, biologically younger by nine years, compared to those who subscribed to more moderate exercise programs, as well as those who rarely exercised.
When it comes to nutrition, one should consider fasting for 16 hours per day, Doty said. This is known as the 16/8 method, where one’s daily calories are consumed within an eight hour window, fasting for the remaining 16 hours, just like Mirabile. Intermittent fasting is associated with cellular repair and less inflammation, though it’s not for everyone, Doty added. Consult with a medical professional before trying a fasting regimen.
Finally, Doty advised to “avoid anger, avoid stress.” Easier said than done, but not impossible. “Between stimulus and response, there is a pause and within that pause lies your freedom,” Doty said. Mirabile’s daily meditation ritual could be key to lower stress for healthy aging. Research has linked regular, long-term meditation to having a lower epigenetic age, compared to control groups.
Many other factors could apply. Having a life purpose, as Mirabile does with his company, has also been associated with healthy aging and lower epigenetic age. Of course, Mirabile is just one person, so it’s hard to know how his experience will apply to others. If his tests are accurate, his young biological age could be thanks to his healthy lifestyle, or it could come from a stroke of luck if he inherited genes that protect against aging. Clearly, though, any such genes did not protect him from cancer at an early age.
The third and perhaps most likely explanation: Mirabile’s very young biological age results from a combination of these factors. Some research shows that genetics account for only 25 percent of longevity. That means environmental factors could be driving the other 75 percent, such as where you live, frequency of exercise, quality of nutrition and social support.
The middle-aged – even Brian Johnson – probably can’t ever be 18 again. But more modest goals are reasonable for many. Control what you can for a longer, healthier life.
FDA, researchers work to make clinical trials more diverse
Nestled in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood, a new mural outside Guadalupe Centers Middle School in Kansas City, Missouri imparts a powerful message: “Clinical Research Needs Representation.” The colorful portraits painted above those words feature four cancer survivors of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Two individuals identify as Hispanic, one as African American and another as Native American.
One of the patients depicted in the mural is Kim Jones, a 51-year-old African American breast cancer survivor since 2012. She advocated for an African American friend who participated in several clinical trials for ovarian cancer. Her friend was diagnosed in an advanced stage at age 26 but lived nine more years, thanks to the trials testing new therapeutics. “They are definitely giving people a longer, extended life and a better quality of life,” said Jones, who owns a nail salon. And that’s the message the mural aims to send to the community: Clinical trials need diverse participants.
While racial and ethnic minority groups represent almost half of the U.S. population, the lack of diversity in clinical trials poses serious challenges. Limited awareness and access impede equitable representation, which is necessary to prove the safety and effectiveness of medical interventions across different groups.
A Yale University study on clinical trial diversity published last year in BMJ Medicine found that while 81 percent of trials testing the new cancer drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration between 2012 and 2017 included women, only 23 percent included older adults and 5 percent fairly included racial and ethnic minorities. “It’s both a public health and social justice issue,” said Jennifer E. Miller, an associate professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine. “We need to know how medicines and vaccines work for all clinically distinct groups, not just healthy young White males.” A recent JAMA Oncology editorial stresses out the need for legislation that would require diversity action plans for certain types of trials.
Ensuring meaningful representation of racial and ethnic minorities in clinical trials for regulated medical products is fundamental to public health.--FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf.
But change is on the horizon. Last April, the FDA issued a new draft guidance encouraging industry to find ways to revamp recruitment into clinical trials. The announcement, which expanded on previous efforts, called for including more participants from underrepresented racial and ethnic segments of the population.
“The U.S. population has become increasingly diverse, and ensuring meaningful representation of racial and ethnic minorities in clinical trials for regulated medical products is fundamental to public health,” FDA commissioner Robert M. Califf, a physician, said in a statement. “Going forward, achieving greater diversity will be a key focus throughout the FDA to facilitate the development of better treatments and better ways to fight diseases that often disproportionately impact diverse communities. This guidance also further demonstrates how we support the Administration’s Cancer Moonshot goal of addressing inequities in cancer care, helping to ensure that every community in America has access to cutting-edge cancer diagnostics, therapeutics and clinical trials.”
Lola Fashoyin-Aje, associate director for Science and Policy to Address Disparities in the Oncology Center of Excellence at the FDA, said that the agency “has long held the view that clinical trial participants should reflect the clinical and demographic characteristics of the patients who will ultimately receive the drug once approved.” However, “numerous studies over many decades” have measured the extent of underrepresentation. One FDA analysis found that the proportion of White patients enrolled in U.S. clinical trials (88 percent) is much higher than their numbers in country's population. Meanwhile, the enrollment of African American and Native Hawaiian/American Indian and Alaskan Native patients is below their national numbers.
The FDA’s guidance is accelerating researchers’ efforts to be more inclusive of diverse groups in clinical trials, said Joyce Sackey, a clinical professor of medicine and associate dean at Stanford School of Medicine. Underrepresentation is “a huge issue,” she noted. Sackey is focusing on this in her role as the inaugural chief equity, diversity and inclusion officer at Stanford Medicine, which encompasses the medical school and two hospitals.
Until the early 1990s, Sackey pointed out, clinical trials were based on research that mainly included men, as investigators were concerned that women could become pregnant, which would affect the results. This has led to some unfortunate consequences, such as indications and dosages for drugs that cause more side effects in women due to biological differences. “We’ve made some progress in including women, but we have a long way to go in including people of different ethnic and racial groups,” she said.
A new mural outside Guadalupe Centers Middle School in Kansas City, Missouri, advocates for increasing diversity in clinical trials. Kim Jones, 51-year-old African American breast cancer survivor, is second on the left.
Artwork by Vania Soto. Photo by Megan Peters.
Among racial and ethnic minorities, distrust of clinical trials is deeply rooted in a history of medical racism. A prime example is the Tuskegee Study, a syphilis research experiment that started in 1932 and spanned 40 years, involving hundreds of Black men with low incomes without their informed consent. They were lured with inducements of free meals, health care and burial stipends to participate in the study undertaken by the U.S. Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
By 1947, scientists had figured out that they could provide penicillin to help patients with syphilis, but leaders of the Tuskegee research failed to offer penicillin to their participants throughout the rest of the study, which lasted until 1972.
Opeyemi Olabisi, an assistant professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center, aims to increase the participation of African Americans in clinical research. As a nephrologist and researcher, he is the principal investigator of a clinical trial focusing on the high rate of kidney disease fueled by two genetic variants of the apolipoprotein L1 (APOL1) gene in people of recent African ancestry. Individuals of this background are four times more likely to develop kidney failure than European Americans, with these two variants accounting for much of the excess risk, Olabisi noted.
The trial is part of an initiative, CARE and JUSTICE for APOL1-Mediated Kidney Disease, through which Olabisi hopes to diversify study participants. “We seek ways to engage African Americans by meeting folks in the community, providing accessible information and addressing structural hindrances that prevent them from participating in clinical trials,” Olabisi said. The researchers go to churches and community organizations to enroll people who do not visit academic medical centers, which typically lead clinical trials. Since last fall, the initiative has screened more than 250 African Americans in North Carolina for the genetic variants, he said.
Other key efforts are underway. “Breaking down barriers, including addressing access, awareness, discrimination and racism, and workforce diversity, are pivotal to increasing clinical trial participation in racial and ethnic minority groups,” said Joshua J. Joseph, assistant professor of medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Along with the university’s colleges of medicine and nursing, researchers at the medical center partnered with the African American Male Wellness Agency, Genentech and Pfizer to host webinars soliciting solutions from almost 450 community members, civic representatives, health care providers, government organizations and biotechnology professionals in 25 states and five countries.
Their findings, published in February in the journal PLOS One, suggested that including incentives or compensation as part of the research budget at the institutional level may help resolve some issues that hinder racial and ethnic minorities from participating in clinical trials. Compared to other groups, more Blacks and Hispanics have jobs in service, production and transportation, the authors note. It can be difficult to get paid leave in these sectors, so employees often can’t join clinical trials during regular business hours. If more leaders of trials offer money for participating, that could make a difference.
Obstacles include geographic access, language and other communications issues, limited awareness of research options, cost and lack of trust.
Christopher Corsico, senior vice president of development at GSK, formerly GlaxoSmithKline, said the pharmaceutical company conducted a 17-year retrospective study on U.S. clinical trial diversity. “We are using epidemiology and patients most impacted by a particular disease as the foundation for all our enrollment guidance, including study diversity plans,” Corsico said. “We are also sharing our results and ideas across the pharmaceutical industry.”
Judy Sewards, vice president and head of clinical trial experience at Pfizer’s headquarters in New York, said the company has committed to achieving racially and ethnically diverse participation at or above U.S. census or disease prevalence levels (as appropriate) in all trials. “Today, barriers to clinical trial participation persist,” Sewards said. She noted that these obstacles include geographic access, language and other communications issues, limited awareness of research options, cost and lack of trust. “Addressing these challenges takes a village. All stakeholders must come together and work collaboratively to increase diversity in clinical trials.”
It takes a village indeed. Hope Krebill, executive director of the Masonic Cancer Alliance, the outreach network of the University of Kansas Cancer Center in Kansas City, which commissioned the mural, understood that well. So her team actively worked with their metaphorical “village.” “We partnered with the community to understand their concerns, knowledge and attitudes toward clinical trials and research,” said Krebill. “With that information, we created a clinical trials video and a social media campaign, and finally, the mural to encourage people to consider clinical trials as an option for care.”
Besides its encouraging imagery, the mural will also be informational. It will include a QR code that viewers can scan to find relevant clinical trials in their location, said Vania Soto, a Mexican artist who completed the rendition in late February. “I’m so honored to paint people that are survivors and are living proof that clinical trials worked for them,” she said.
Jones, the cancer survivor depicted in the mural, hopes the image will prompt people to feel more open to partaking in clinical trials. “Hopefully, it will encourage people to inquire about what they can do — how they can participate,” she said.