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From patient to researcher

College student Taylor Hoff is spending his summer in a University of Minnesota lab working toward finding safer, more targeted treatments for leukemia. (Photo by Jim Bovin)

Student’s childhood experience with a rare tumor sparks his interest in the medical field

Not many 2-year-olds spend the majority of their days in the hospital, running down the halls while their parents chase after them with IV drip bags.

For the young Taylor Hoff, this was a reality. He could rest his chin on the baseball-sized tumor on his collarbone caused by a rare condition called hemangioendothelioma.

The tumor was benign but still developmentally threatening, says the doctor who treated him, Christopher Moertel, M.D., who is now a pediatric hematologist-oncologist at University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital.

In addition to the collarbone tumor, there were precursors that suggested the existence of other tumors on Hoff’s spine. Had these tumors grown, his spine likely would have been disfigured.

Because the condition was so rare, there really wasn’t a standard protocol for treatment. But thanks to the quick thinking of Moertel and his colleagues, today Hoff is a healthy college student pursuing a career in medicine and volunteering in a University of Minnesota research lab under the direction of Craig Eckfeldt, M.D., Ph.D., and Masonic Cancer Center member David Largaespada, Ph.D. The group is working to develop targeted treatment approaches for acute myeloid leukemia.

“I’m remarkably lucky that I’m alive,” Hoff says. “Not just because of the excellent physicians and the care I received, but also because they were able to identify [the tumor] and see what was going on. I’m all kinds of lucky.”

Hoff—now a senior molecular, cellular, and developmental biology major at the University of Colorado Boulder—interned at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital for two summers. This summer Hoff wanted to “mix things up” and try working in a new facility. He emailed Moertel, whom his family has kept in touch with over the years, asking him to keep an eye out for open positions at the University. Soon enough, Hoff was stationed in Eckfeldt’s lab, evaluating proteins in cell cultures and studying the ways leukemia cells react to various potential treatments.

Eckfeldt’s research is focused on acute myeloid leukemia because current treatments are extremely harsh and not very effective. “There’s an unmet need from a clinical standpoint,” he explains.

In the long term, Eckfeldt, Hoff, and the other members of their lab team hope to find ways to specifically target the cancer cells and thereby create more effective and less toxic treatments.

There is no doubt that Hoff’s career choices were influenced by his hospital-ridden childhood. “Who I am as a person was shaped by the events that happened to me at a young age,” he says.

Eckfeldt says that Hoff’s experience with illness provides him with a unique perspective, level of maturity, and a certain drive. “These characteristics will serve him well,” Eckfeldt says.

And Hoff says he simply enjoys discovering new things. “It’s hard to find something that’s truly novel in the world, but science has that amazing capability,” says Hoff with wonder in his eyes. “The trick is knowing where to look.”

By Grace Birnstengel

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