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
Scientists want the salamander's secret: how they regenerate tissue
All organisms have the capacity to repair or regenerate tissue damage. None can do it better than salamanders or newts, which can regenerate an entire severed limb.
That feat has amazed and delighted man from the dawn of time and led to endless attempts to understand how it happens – and whether we can control it for our own purposes. An exciting new clue toward that understanding has come from a surprising source: research on the decline of cells, called cellular senescence.
Senescence is the last stage in the life of a cell. Whereas some cells simply break up or wither and die off, others transition into a zombie-like state where they can no longer divide. In this liminal phase, the cell still pumps out many different molecules that can affect its neighbors and cause low grade inflammation. Senescence is associated with many of the declining biological functions that characterize aging, such as inflammation and genomic instability.
Oddly enough, newts are one of the few species that do not accumulate senescent cells as they age, according to research over several years by Maximina Yun. A research group leader at the Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology and Genetics, in Dresden, Germany, Yun discovered that senescent cells were induced at some stages of regeneration of the salamander limb, “and then, as the regeneration progresses, they disappeared, they were eliminated by the immune system,” she says. “They were present at particular times and then they disappeared.”
Senescent cells added to the edges of the wound helped the healthy muscle cells to “dedifferentiate,” essentially turning back the developmental clock of those cells into more primitive states.
Previous research on senescence in aging had suggested, logically enough, that applying those cells to the stump of a newly severed salamander limb would slow or even stop its regeneration. But Yun stood that idea on its head. She theorized that senescent cells might also play a role in newt limb regeneration, and she tested it by both adding and removing senescent cells from her animals. It turned out she was right, as the newt limbs grew back faster than normal when more senescent cells were included.
Senescent cells added to the edges of the wound helped the healthy muscle cells to “dedifferentiate,” essentially turning back the developmental clock of those cells into more primitive states, which could then be turned into progenitors, a cell type in between stem cells and specialized cells, needed to regrow the muscle tissue of the missing limb. “We think that this ability to dedifferentiate is intrinsically a big part of why salamanders can regenerate all these very complex structures, which other organisms cannot,” she explains.
Yun sees regeneration as a two part problem. First, the cells must be able to sense that their neighbors from the lost limb are not there anymore. Second, they need to be able to produce the intermediary progenitors for regeneration, , to form what is missing. “Molecularly, that must be encoded like a 3D map,” she says, otherwise the new tissue might grow back as a blob, or liver, or fin instead of a limb.
Another recent study, this time at the Mayo Clinic, provides evidence supporting the role of senescent cells in regeneration. Looking closely at molecules that send information between cells in the wound of a mouse, the researchers found that senescent cells appeared near the start of the healing process and then disappeared as healing progressed. In contrast, persistent senescent cells were the hallmark of a chronic wound that did not heal properly. The function and significance of senescence cells depended on both the timing and the context of their environment.
The paper suggests that senescent cells are not all the same. That has become clearer as researchers have been able to identify protein markers on the surface of some senescent cells. The patterns of these proteins differ for some senescent cells compared to others. In biology, such physical differences suggest functional differences, so it is becoming increasingly likely there are subsets of senescent cells with differing functions that have not yet been identified.
There are disagreements within the research community as to whether newts have acquired their regenerative capacity through a unique evolutionary change, or if other animals, including humans, retain this capacity buried somewhere in their genes.
Scientists initially thought that senescent cells couldn’t play a role in regeneration because they could no longer reproduce, says Anthony Atala, a practicing surgeon and bioengineer who leads the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina. But Yun’s study points in the other direction. “What this paper shows clearly is that these cells have the potential to be involved in tissue regeneration [in newts]. The question becomes, will these cells be able to do the same in humans.”
As our knowledge of senescent cells increases, Atala thinks we need to embrace a new analogy to help understand them: humans in retirement. They “have acquired a lot of wisdom throughout their whole life and they can help younger people and mentor them to grow to their full potential. We're seeing the same thing with these cells,” he says. They are no longer putting energy into their own reproduction, but the signaling molecules they secrete “can help other cells around them to regenerate.”
There are disagreements within the research community as to whether newts have acquired their regenerative capacity through a unique evolutionary change, or if other animals, including humans, retain this capacity buried somewhere in their genes. If so, it seems that our genes are unable to express this ability, perhaps as part of a tradeoff in acquiring other traits. It is a fertile area of research.
Dedifferentiation is likely to become an important process in the field of regenerative medicine. One extreme example: a lab has been able to turn back the clock and reprogram adult male skin cells into female eggs, a potential milestone in reproductive health. It will be more difficult to control just how far back one wishes to go in the cell's dedifferentiation – part way or all the way back into a stem cell – and then direct it down a different developmental pathway. Yun is optimistic we can learn these tricks from newts.
A growing field of research is using drugs called senolytics to remove senescent cells and slow or even reverse disease of aging.
“Senolytics are great, but senolytics target different types of senescence,” Yun says. “If senescent cells have positive effects in the context of regeneration, of wound healing, then maybe at the beginning of the regeneration process, you may not want to take them out for a little while.”
“If you look at pretty much all biological systems, too little or too much of something can be bad, you have to be in that central zone” and at the proper time, says Atala. “That's true for proteins, sugars, and the drugs that you take. I think the same thing is true for these cells. Why would they be different?”
Our growing understanding that senescence is not a single thing but a variety of things likely means that effective senolytic drugs will not resemble a single sledge hammer but more a carefully manipulated scalpel where some types of senescent cells are removed while others are added. Combinations and timing could be crucial, meaning the difference between regenerating healthy tissue, a scar, or worse.
The rise of remote work is a win-win for people with disabilities and employers
Disability advocates see remote work as a silver lining of the pandemic, a win-win for adults with disabilities and the business world alike.
Any corporate leader would jump at the opportunity to increase their talent pool of potential employees by 15 percent, with all these new hires belonging to an underrepresented minority. That’s especially true given tight labor markets and CEO desires to increase headcount. Yet, too few leaders realize that people with disabilities are the largest minority group in this country, numbering 50 million.
Some executives may dread the extra investments in accommodating people’s disabilities. Yet, providing full-time remote work could suffice, according to a new study by the Economic Innovation Group think tank. The authors found that the employment rate for people with disabilities did not simply reach the pre-pandemic level by mid-2022, but far surpassed it, to the highest rate in over a decade. “Remote work and a strong labor market are helping [individuals with disabilities] find work,” said Adam Ozimek, who led the research and is chief economist at the Economic Innovation Group.
Disability advocates see this development as a silver lining of the pandemic, a win-win for adults with disabilities and the business world alike. For decades before the pandemic, employers had refused requests from workers with disabilities to work remotely, according to Thomas Foley, executive director of the National Disability Institute. During the pandemic, "we all realized that...many of us could work remotely,” Foley says. “[T]hat was disproportionately positive for people with disabilities."
Charles-Edouard Catherine, director of corporate and government relations for the National Organization on Disability, said that remote-work options had been advocated for many years to accommodate disabilities. “It’s a little frustrating that for decades corporate America was saying it’s too complicated, we’ll lose productivity, and now suddenly it’s like, sure, let’s do it.”
The pandemic opened doors for people with disabilities
Early in the pandemic, employment rates dropped for everyone, including people with disabilities, according to Ozimek’s research. However, these rates recovered quickly. In the second quarter of 2022, people with disabilities aged 25 to 54, the prime working age, are 3.5 percent more likely to be employed, compared to before the pandemic.
What about people without disabilites? They are still 1.1 percent less likely to be employed.
These numbers suggest that remote work has enabled a substantial number of people with disabilities to find and retain employment.
“We have a last-in, first-out labor market, and [people with disabilities] are often among the last in and the first out,” Ozimek says. However, this dynamic has changed, with adults with disabilities seeing employment rates recover much faster. Now, the question is whether the new trend will endure, Ozimek adds. “And my conclusion is that not only is it a permanent thing, but it’s going to improve.”
Gene Boes, president and chief executive of the Northwest Center, a Seattle organization that helps people with disabilities become more independent, confirms this finding. “The new world we live in has opened the door a little bit more…because there’s just more demand for labor.”
Long COVID disabilities put a premium on remote work
Remote work can help mitigate the impact of long COVID. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 19 percent of those who had COVID developed long COVID. Recent Census Bureau data indicates that 16 million working age Americans suffer from it, with economic costs estimated at $3.7 trillion.
Certainly, many of these so-called long-haulers experience relatively mild symptoms - such as loss of smell - which, while troublesome, are not disabling. But other symptoms are serious enough to be disabilities.
According to a recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, about a quarter of those with long COVID changed their employment status or working hours. That means long COVID was serious enough to interfere with work for 4 million people. For many, the issue was serious enough to qualify them as disabled.
Indeed, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found in a just-released study that the number of individuals with disabilities in the U.S. grew by 1.7 million. That growth stemmed mainly from long COVID conditions such as fatigue and brain fog, meaning difficulties with concentration or memory, with 1.3 million people reporting an increase in brain fog since mid-2020.
Many had to drop out of the labor force due to long COVID. Yet, about 900,000 people who are newly disabled have managed to continue working. Without remote work, they might have lost these jobs.
For example, a software engineer at one of my client companies has struggled with brain fog related to long COVID. With remote work, this employee can work during the hours when she feels most mentally alert and focused, even if that means short bursts of productivity throughout the day. With flexible scheduling, she can take rests, meditate, or engage in activities that help her regain focus and energy. Without the need to commute to the office, she can save energy and time and reduce stress, which is crucial when dealing with brain fog.
In fact, the author of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York study notes that long COVID can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disability Act, depending on the specifics of the condition. That means the law can require private employers with fifteen or more staff, as well as government agencies, to make reasonable accommodations for those with long COVID. Richard Deitz, the author of this study, writes in the paper that “telework and flexible scheduling are two accommodations that can be particularly beneficial for workers dealing with fatigue and brain fog.”
The current drive to return to the office, led by many C-suite executives, may need to be reconsidered in light of legal and HR considerations. Arlene S. Kanter, director of the disability law and policy program at the Syracuse University College of Law, said that the question should depend on whether people with disabilities can perform their work well at home, as they did during Covid outbreaks. “[T]hen people with disabilities, as a matter of accommodation, shouldn’t be denied that right,” Kanter said.
But companies shouldn’t need to worry about legal regulations. It simply makes dollars and sense to expand their talent pool by 15% of an underrepresented minority. After all, extensive research shows that improving diversity boosts both decision-making and financial performance.
Companies that are offering more flexible work options have already gained significant benefits in terms of diverse hires. In its efforts to adapt to the post-pandemic environment, Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, decided to offer permanent fully remote work options to its entire workforce. And according to Meta chief diversity officer Maxine Williams, the candidates who accepted job offers for remote positions were “substantially more likely” to come from diverse communities: people with disabilities, Black, Hispanic, Alaskan Native, Native American, veterans, and women. The numbers bear out these claims: people with disabilities increased from 4.7 to 6.2 percent of Meta’s employees.
Having consulted for 21 companies to help them transition to hybrid work arrangements, I can confirm that Meta’s numbers aren’t a fluke. The more my clients proved willing to offer remote work, the more staff with disabilities they recruited - and retained. That includes employees with mobility challenges. But it also includes employees with less visible disabilities, such as people with long COVID and immunocompromised people who feel reluctant to put themselves at risk of getting COVID by coming into the office.
Unfortunately, many leaders fail to see the benefits of remote work for underrepresented groups, such as those with disabilities. Some even say the opposite is true, with JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon claiming that returning to the office will aid diversity.
What explains this poor executive decision making? Part of the answer comes from a mental blindspot called the in-group bias. Our minds tend to favor and pay attention to the concerns of those in the group of people who seem to look and think like us. Dimon and other executives without disabilities don’t perceive people with disabilities to be part of their in-group. They thus are blind to the concerns of those with disabilities, which leads to misperceptions such as Dimon’s that returning to the office will aid diversity.
In-group bias is one of many dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases. They impact decision making in all life areas, ranging from the future of work to relationships.
Another relevant cognitive bias is the empathy gap. This term refers to our difficulty empathizing with those outside of our in-group. The lack of empathy combines with the blindness from the in-group bias, causing executives to ignore the feelings of employees with disabilities and prospective hires.
Omission bias also plays a role. This dangerous judgment error causes us to perceive failure to act as less problematic than acting. Consequently, executives perceive a failure to support the needs of those with disabilities as a minor matter.
The failure to empower people with disabilities through remote work options will prove costly to the bottom lines of companies. Not only are limiting their talent pool by 15 percent, they’re harming their ability to recruit and retain diverse candidates. And as their lawyers and HR departments will tell them, by violating the ADA, they are putting themselves in legal jeopardy.
By contrast, companies like Meta - and my clients - that offer remote work opportunities are seizing a competitive advantage by recruiting these underrepresented candidates. They’re lowering costs of labor while increasing diversity. The future belongs to the savvy companies that offer the flexibility that people with disabilities need.