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Taylor Schreiber, now 39, runs an immunotherapy company testing drugs that may be less toxic alternative to chemotherapy.

(Courtesy Schreiber)


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.

Pamela Ferdinand
Pamela Ferdinand is a freelance journalist, editor, and author based in Chicago.

A pregnant woman is uncertain which medicine is safe to take.

(© gpointstudio/Adobe)


Sarah Mancoll was 22 years old when she noticed a bald spot on the back of her head. A dermatologist confirmed that it was alopecia aerata, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss.

Of 213 new drugs approved from 2003 to 2012, only five percent included any data from pregnant women.

She successfully treated the condition with corticosteroid shots for nearly 10 years. Then Mancoll and her husband began thinking about starting a family. Would the shots be safe for her while pregnant? For the fetus? What about breastfeeding?

Mancoll consulted her primary care physician, her dermatologist, even a pediatrician. Without clinical data, no one could give her a definitive answer, so she stopped treatment to be "on the safe side." By the time her son was born, she'd lost at least half her hair. She returned to her Washington, D.C., public policy job two months later entirely bald—and without either eyebrows or eyelashes.

After having two more children in quick succession, Mancoll recently resumed the shots but didn't forget her experience. Today, she is an advocate for including more pregnant and lactating women in clinical studies so they can have more information about therapies than she did.

"I live a very privileged life, and I'll do just fine with or without hair, but it's not just about me," Mancoll said. "It's about a huge population of women who are being disenfranchised…They're invisible."

About 4 million women give birth each year in the United States, and many face medical conditions, from hypertension and diabetes to psychiatric disorders. A 2011 study showed that most women reported taking at least one medication while pregnant between 1976 and 2008. But for decades, pregnant and lactating women have been largely excluded from clinical drug studies that rigorously test medications for safety and effectiveness.

An estimated 98 percent of government-approved drug treatments between 2000 and 2010 had insufficient data to determine risk to the fetus, and close to 75 percent had no human pregnancy data at all. All told, of 213 new pharmaceuticals approved from 2003 to 2012, only five percent included any data from pregnant women.

But recent developments suggest that could be changing. Amid widespread concerns about increased maternal mortality rates, women's health advocates, physicians, and researchers are sensing and encouraging a cultural shift toward protecting women through responsible research instead of from research.

"The question is not whether to do research with pregnant women, but how," Anne Drapkin Lyerly, professor and associate director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote last year in an op-ed. "These advances are essential. It is well past time—and it is morally imperative—for research to benefit pregnant women."

"In excluding pregnant women from drug trials to protect them from experimentation, we subject them to uncontrolled experimentation."

To that end, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' Committee on Ethics acknowledged that research trials need to be better designed so they don't "inappropriately constrain the reproductive choices of study participants or unnecessarily exclude pregnant women." A federal task force also called for significantly expanded research and the removal of regulatory barriers that make it difficult for pregnant and lactating women to participate in research.

Several months ago, a government change to a regulation known as the Common Rule took effect, removing pregnant women as a "vulnerable population" in need of special protections -- a designation that had made it more difficult to enroll them in clinical drug studies. And just last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued new draft guidances for industry on when and how to include pregnant and lactating women in clinical trials.

Inclusion is better than the absence of data on their treatment, said Catherine Spong, former chair of the federal task force.

"It's a paradox," said Spong, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and chief of maternal fetal medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "There is a desire to protect women and fetuses from harm, which is translated to a reluctance to include them in research. By excluding them, the evidence for their care is limited."

Jacqueline Wolf, a professor of the history of medicine at Ohio University, agreed.

"In excluding pregnant women from drug trials to protect them from experimentation, we subject them to uncontrolled experimentation," she said. "We give them the medication without doing any research, and that's dangerous."

Women, of course, don't stop getting sick or having chronic medical conditions just because they are pregnant or breastfeeding, and conditions during pregnancy can affect a baby's health later in life. Evidence-based data is important for other reasons, too.

Pregnancy can dramatically change a woman's physiology, affecting how drugs act on her body and how her body acts or reacts to drugs. For instance, pregnant bodies can more quickly clear out medications such as glyburide, used during diabetes in pregnancy to stabilize high blood-sugar levels, which can be toxic to the fetus and harmful to women. That means a regular dose of the drug may not be enough to control blood sugar and prevent poor outcomes.

Pregnant patients also may be reluctant to take needed drugs for underlying conditions (and doctors may be hesitant to prescribe them), which in turn can cause more harm to the woman and fetus than had they been treated. For example, women who have severe asthma attacks while pregnant are at a higher risk of having low-birthweight babies, and pregnant women with uncontrolled diabetes in early pregnancy have more than four times the risk of birth defects.

Current clinical trials involving pregnant women are assessing treatments for obstructive sleep apnea, postpartum hemorrhage, lupus, and diabetes.

For Kate O'Brien, taking medication during her pregnancy was a matter of life and death. A freelance video producer who lives in New Jersey, O'Brien was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2015 after she became pregnant with her second child, a boy. Even as she signed hospital consent forms, she had no idea if the treatment would harm him.

"It's a really awful experience," said O'Brien, who now is active with We are TB, an advocacy and support network. "All they had to tell me about the medication was just that women have been taking it for a really long time all over the world. That was the best they could do."

More and more doctors, researchers and women's health organizations and advocates are calling that unacceptable.

By indicating that filling current knowledge gaps is "a critical public health need," the FDA is signaling its support for advancing research with pregnant women, said Lyerly, also co-founder of the Second Wave Initiative, which promotes fair representation of the health interests of pregnant women in biomedical research and policies. "It's a very important shift."

Research with pregnant women can be done ethically, Lyerly said, whether by systematically collecting data from those already taking medications or enrolling pregnant women in studies of drugs or vaccines in development.

Current clinical trials involving pregnant women are assessing treatments for obstructive sleep apnea, postpartum hemorrhage, lupus, and diabetes. Notable trials in development target malaria and HIV prevention in pregnancy.

"It clearly is doable to do this research, and test trials are important to provide evidence for treatment," Spong said. "If we don't have that evidence, we aren't making the best educated decisions for women."

Pamela Ferdinand
Pamela Ferdinand is a freelance journalist, editor, and author based in Chicago.