M. Eric Kohler’s commitment to both cancer research — particularly CAR T-cell therapy — and clinical care make him a double threat when it comes to battling pediatric blood cancer.
Growing up outside of St. Louis, Kohler always had “a very deep fascination with biology and understanding how life works.” That interest naturally led to his decision to become a physician, but it wasn’t until his senior year of college at Rockhurst University that Kohler began to consider adding research to his career goals.
“I started doing research across town at the University of Kansas Medical Center studying how HIV gets into the brain, and it kind of tripped this switch that I was really interested in research,” Kohler says.
Kohler jokes that his father “almost disowned me” when he turned down an early acceptance to medical school to spend an extra year doing research and reapply for a dual MD-PhD program. But Kohler — a CU Cancer Center member and a researcher and physician at Children’s Hospital Colorado specializing in pediatric hematology and oncology and bone marrow transplantation — has never regretted the decision.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry from Rockhurst, Kohler spent the next nine years earning a dual MD and PhD in tumor immunology from Medical College of Wisconsin. From there, he moved to Maryland, where he did his pediatric residency at Johns Hopkins University and a joint fellowship in pediatric hematology and oncology at Johns Hopkins and the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health.
Kohler says he knew early on that he wanted to work in pediatrics and that it was a “happy coincidence” that his graduate lab work at Wisconsin focused on vaccine research for pediatric neuroblastoma.
It was during his fellowship at the NCI that Kohler dove into what would become his professional passion: a new type of immunotherapy called CAR T-cell therapy. In fact, Kohler and his colleagues were running some of the first CAR T-cell therapy clinical trials ever, and he says their findings were “transformative.”
“It was the realization of what we'd been trying to do throughout my entire graduate school career with vaccines, but with a very different approach and a very, very effective one,” Kohler says.
This interest in immunotherapy also influenced Kohler’s decision to specialize in hematology and bone marrow transplantation. “I found that that was where I could really apply immunotherapy the most efficiently,” Kohler explains.
Kohler and his mentor, Terry Fry, MD, were recruited to build a cellular therapy program within the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s Hospital Colorado in 2018. Since arriving, Kohler has been involved in the creation of a new CAR T-cell therapy that was designed, developed, and manufactured on campus. The treatment is now in clinical trials with adult patients and will soon be live in pediatric patients as well.
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The physician also provides clinical care for patients at Children’s Hospital, primarily those with relapsed or high-risk leukemia who need a bone marrow transplant or CAR T-cell therapy because they are unlikely to respond to conventional chemotherapy.
“It’s got very high highs and very low lows, but it’s extremely rewarding,” Kohler says of his clinical work.
Kohler, who just got his own lab a few months ago, is excited to continue his research on CAR T cells. His latest research focuses on redesigning CAR T cells to better respond to leukemia and lymphoma, as well as applying the treatment to types of leukemia for which CAR T-cell therapy isn’t currently used, such as AML. He’s even working on a collaboration with a colleague who does brain tumor research.
"We've got some really exciting preclinical data about a CAR T cell that we developed against a pediatric brain tumor called DIPG [diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma],” Kohler says. “Currently it’s considered completely incurable, but we've got some really promising results that I think that could go somewhere in the next five to 10 years.”