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 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.
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 himimages 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.”