Stanford oncologist Holbrook Kohrt dies at 38

Kohrt, an assistant professor of oncology who suffered from hemophilia, was remembered for his passion for helping patients and advancing research in the use of the immune system to fight cancer.

Holbrook Kohrt

Holbrook Kohrt, MD, PhD, a noted clinician-researcher at Stanford Medicine dedicated to finding novel ways to arm the immune system to fight cancer, died Feb. 24 in Miami of complications from hemophilia. He was 38.

Kohrt was vacationing in the Bahamas when he became ill. He was flown to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, where he suffered an intracranial hemorrhage on Feb. 22. He died two days later.

His colleagues say they will remember Kohrt for his brilliant mind, his thoughtful and impassioned care of cancer patients, and his unique ability to forge rapid and lasting personal connections with people from all walks of life.

An assistant professor of oncology at the School of Medicine, Kohrt struggled all his life with hemophilia, a disorder that prevents blood from clotting properly. He was open about his disease and how it motivated his research and patient care. In recent years, he had become resistant to the clotting factor used to treat his hemophilia.

 “Holbrook knew that his time here on Earth would be short, and he worked tirelessly to accomplish as much as possible,” said George Sledge Jr., MD, professor and chief of oncology. “He was an exceptional human being, unparalleled in his brilliance, dedication and persistence. He was passionate about research and making a difference for cancer patients. This is such a loss for his friends, colleagues and the field of medical oncology.”

‘A true Stanford loyalist’

Kohrt had been a member of the Stanford community since he arrived as a medical student in 2000. He completed his residency and fellowship and a PhD program of his own devising at the university. Described as “a true Stanford loyalist,” he touched the lives of colleagues, trainees and patients with his openness about his own disease and his sincere desire to help others.

 “A compassionate physician and an innovative investigator, Holbrook exemplified the best of Stanford Medicine,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, in an email to faculty, staff and students. “Holbrook was among the most brilliant translational researchers of his generation who worked tirelessly to put his findings to work for cancer patients. His bench research on novel therapies to enhance anti-tumor immunity regularly entered the clinic. But to many of us, Holbrook was much more than a brilliant mind; he was a warm and caring friend.”

Kohrt was born Dec. 14, 1977, in Paupack Township in Pennsylvania. The mutation that caused his hemophilia occurred spontaneously and his parents — pediatrician Alan Kohrt, MD, and nurse MaryLou Kidd — were surprised when their newborn son developed severe, unexplained bruising. But after some adjustment, the family took the diagnosis in stride and set about providing as normal a life as possible for their son, while also navigating the very real possibility that the blood products needed to keep him alive could be contaminated with viruses such as HIV and hepatitis.

‘A unique perspective’

 “As he grew older, Holbrook had to inject himself, sometimes on a near-daily basis, with blood clotting factor,” said Ronald Levy, MD, professor of oncology. “This gave him a unique perspective. He was never able to forget his own mortality. He was acutely aware that he was a beneficiary of advances in medical science, and he was determined to give something back to others.”

Kohrt’s research focused on the idea that the immune system could be trained to recognize and fight cancer. He was the co-principal investigator for many Stanford-based trials exploring whether anticancer antibodies such as rituximab, which was developed in Levy’s lab to treat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, could synergize with other antibodies to provide an improved immune response.

He also devised clinical trials to learn whether it is possible to prevent the recurrence of solid tumors, such as cervical or ovarian cancers, by vaccinating a patient with small pieces of cancer-specific proteins to help the immune system immediately attack any remaining cancer cells.

“Holbrook was struck by the potential power of the immune system to treat cancer,” said Levy. “He made some very important discoveries in this field and designed some critical clinical trials which have directly benefited patients.”

Outpouring of emails

In the hours after Kohrt’s death, Sledge and Levy received an outpouring of emails from researchers around the world expressing their grief and sorrow.

“Holbrook was widely known and respected,” said Sledge. “Even senior researchers in the field of medical oncology have commented that they learned a lot from their interactions with him.”

In a 2013 Stanford Medicine magazine profile, Kohrt reflected on his unique situation as both a doctor and a person with a life-threatening disease:

“What it really underscores for me is that, in some parts of your life, things are under your control, and in others they are not. Initially there is a very high level of fear when you realize that the outcome is out of your hands. You have to choose whether you’re going to perseverate on that and feel that fear every day, or if you’re going to hope and move forward.”

Kohrt is survived by his parents, Mary Louise Kidd and Alan Kohrt; siblings Brandon, Barret and Brie Kohrt; stepmother Lois Kohrt; stepsiblings Jennifer Baldwin, Katherine Czapla and Ryan Baldwin; sisters-in-law Christina Chan and Angie Kohrt; nephew, Ceiran Kohrt-Chan; and girlfriend Kendra Cannoy.

A celebration of Kohrt’s life will be held March 11 in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Details about the memorial can be found at http://www.forevermissed.com/holbrook.

A memorial at Stanford will be held at a later date.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Kohrt’s memory may be made to the Holbrook Kidd Kohrt Cancer Immunotherapy Fund at Anticancerfund.org; to a fund at Stanford University being set up to support the training of fellows in medical oncology (contact Ron Levy at levy@stanford.edu); or the Children’s Hospital Foundation (contact Julie Taylor at julie.taylor@erlanger.org).



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