An amazing tribute to Holbrook:
Always loved. Forever in our hearts

Holbrook Edwin Kidd Kohrt, MD, PhD (1977-2016)

Holbrook Kohrt, MD, PhD, an assistant professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, renowned for his clinical trials research examining novel immunologic approaches to treat patients with leukemia/lymphoma, died on Wednesday, February 24th, 2016, at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, FL. The cause of death was complications related to hemophilia. Holbrook was 38 years old.

Holbrook, or Brook, as he was known to family and friends, had been a topic of media interest throughout his short life not only due to his translational research on novel therapies to enhance anti-tumor immunity, but also because he lived with a chronic and life-threatening blood disease that shaped his character, relationships, career choice, and pace of life.

Dr. Kohrt’s research and clinical work focused on cancer therapy and the use of antibodies, which provoke the body's immune system into fighting – and hopefully eliminating – the body’s tumors. He was a member of the Levy Laboratory on Lymphocytes and Lymphoma, which helped develop and test the first US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved antibody against cancer for the treatment of lymphoma in 2008. Holbrook started his own laboratory in 2012, which developed five novel patented approaches to immune oncology. At the time of his passing, Dr. Kohrt’s trials were being investigated at multiple sites across the globe.

Dr. Lloyd B. Minor, Dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine described Holbrook as “a compassionate physician and an innovative investigator… who exemplified the best of Stanford Medicine. Holbrook was among the most brilliant translational researchers of his generation who worked tirelessly to put his findings to work for cancer patients.”

Holbrook Edwin Kidd Kohrt was born on December 14th, 1977, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to Mary Louise Kidd of Valley Forge, PA and Alan Kohrt, MD, of Aurelia, Iowa. Holbrook grew up in the rural town of Paupack, Pennsylvania, where his father served as a pediatrician in the National Health Service Corps. Holbrook suffered a painful and enigmatic infancy marked by unexplained bruises, swelling, and uncontrolled bleeding.  He was eventually diagnosed with Severe Hemophilia, a rare genetic disorder caused by missing or defective Factor VIII, a clotting protein needed to stop external and internal bleeding. “Treatment” for the disease often consists of prevention of accidents, and Holbrook wore a helmet during his waking hours until he was seven years old to prevent him from a possibly fatal head injury. Combined with his armory of slings, splints, crutches, and mobility aids, his disease was not to be an invisible one, and thus he quickly learned to be a spokesman for the disease in his small town.

When Brook was a child, his mother, MaryLou, began to work for the American Red Cross, and with Brook in tow, spread awareness about the need for blood transfusions, which was the only treatment for hemophilia at that time. The local chapter soon had the highest percentage of eligible adults donating blood – more than any other county in the state – marking the start of the greater communal impact his disease was to have for those around him.

Brook’s lifesaving treatment carried with it high risks for infection, especially as a child in the ‘80’s, when HIV/AIDS became a pernicicious and stigmitizing global epidemic. Around 80% of individuals with severe hemophilia contracted HIV during that time period. Holbrook described the effect of HIV on his childhood and perception of mortality:

 “From when I was about 10 until I was about 15 or 16, I was very aware that my risk of contracting HIV and other pathogens increased with each transfusion. I was also very aware, though, that without the transfusion, I would die. I watched some of my best friends become infected in this way, and saw them go through the process of dying from AIDS and the stigma the disease carried at that time. The whole experience was very shaping.” (from In His Blood by Krista Conger, Science Writer at Standford University. April 2013)

Holbrook was one of the lucky ones who didn’t contract HIV, though he did acquire, and eventually recover from, Hepatitis C. From the time Holbrook was old enough to understand his disease, he was mature enough to understand the implications, and he lived his life with a sense of foreshortened future. He became extremely achievement-oriented, pushing hard to accomplish quickly, wholly, and unapologetically. He had his younger siblings carry encyclopedias in their backpacks when they were with him so he could be constantly learning, and he spent hospital stays as a teenager immersed in news articles and applications for leadership programs. He graduated valedictorian from Wallenpaupack Area High School and went on to study Molecular Biology at Muhlenberg College, where he graduated Summa Cum Laude and valedictorian. He attended Stanford University Medical School as a Baxter Foundation Scholar, Howard Hughes Scholar, and American Society of Hematology Research Fellow.  During that time, he developed and implemented a system for predicting risk for early stage breast cancer. He completed a Ph.D. in clinical trial design and tumor immunology at Stanford, and conducted his dissertation on the use of an agonistic monoclonal antibody capable of enhancing the efficacy of tumor-targeting therapeutics.

Holbrook described his choice of career path in a 2014 article in San Francisco Magazine

“As I was growing up deciding what to do when I was going to college, the impact of being a physician was very clear. The connection that I had with my hematologist was as close a connection as I had to my siblings… (they) were integral to my day-to-day life, helping me to be optimistic through really challenging periods. I was also fascinated by how our bodies work: I wondered why I didn’t get HIV, and why, when I got Hepatitis C, my body was able to fight it off. The intricacies between the immune system and the virus were intriguing, and they led to my interest in the immune system and cancer…”

Brook lived his life at a dizzying pace, achieving and experiencing with a blinding vigor. Everything he did was at full-speed: he drove fast, he loved hard, he sang loud, and he danced with every part of his often-aching body. In addition to medicine, he loved music, and he surrounded himself with it. Even when he had bleeds that compromised his mobility, he attended music festivals in the United States and throughout Europe, and he was at his best when lost in singing, dancing, and the collective awe that is a live music experience. He kept a circle of loyal and intimate friends with a similar love for the arts and sensation seeking. He was capable of incredible compassion and generosity, and yet had a fierce sense of independence and self-sufficiency that sometimes prevented him from asking for “help” in the traditional sense. 

In a 2013 The New York Times interview, reporter Claudia Dreyfus asked Holbrook whether there was “anything about his own condition that pushe(d) him forward.” He responded:

Oh, yes, but it’s more philosophical than physical. I realized early on that I have to do everything I want to do as soon as possible because I didn’t know what the future could be. That’s been useful in terms of the research and the science. I have the stamina and the commitment to keep trying things. It’s not been so good in terms of personal relationships. I’ve been married twice. But that knowledge forces me to take the time I have to give the maximum to science and to my patients. Research requires great tenacity. When you’ve had a serious illness since infancy, you know to make the most of every single day.”

Over the past three years, Holbrook’s hemophilia had became increasingly complicated. His body built up a resistance to the clotting factor that he injected into his body, almost daily, to prevent bleeds. He had chronic arthritis in his joints from recurrent bleeding, which limited his mobility and led to decreased bone density and increasingly severe muscle atrophy. As his disease progressed, he rallied his intellectual and social resources in an attempt to discover a treatment for the life threatening resistance he had developed to his medication. He relocated to Europe in 2015 for experimental hemophilia treatments.

His colleague and friend, Bart Van Hooland, Managing Partner, Droia Oncology Ventures, summarized the final year of Brook’s life, stating:

With the help of many of the brightest minds in his field, but mainly through his own brilliant creativity, he managed to keep the imminent threat to his life under control. All the while he continued to work incredibly hard on his personal mission of identifying novel strategies to further the possibliity of curing cancer… Even in the most difficult moments he was available to his colleagues and his patients, the physical distance never broke the professional proximity that he had, and (he) maintained a relentless drive for work up until the end.”

In February of 2016, with his hemophilia treatments showing promise, Holbrook flew to the Caribbean for a retreat aimed at refocusing personal and professional priorities.  He reached out to his familiy and friends to express his desire to build on his relationships. While there, he developed a severe infection and was flown to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. A number of complications related to his hemophilia, severe sepsis, and a lifetime of attempting to manage intense pain converged on February 22nd when he suffered a catastrophic bleed into his brain. Friends and family from around the world came to be with him during his final hours. He passed away on the morning of February 24th, with his mother and younger brother, Barret, at his bedside.

Holbrook is survived by his parents, Mary Louise Kidd and Alan Kohrt, his siblings, Brandon, Barret, and Brie Kohrt, stepmother Lois Kohrt, his stepsiblings Jennifer Baldwin, Katherine Czapla, and Ryan Baldwin, his sister-in-laws Christina Chan and Angie Kohrt, his nephews, Ceiran Kohrt-Chan and Keaton Czapla, his cousin T.J. Brunner, and his girlfriend, Kendra Cannoy and ex-wives Jen Abel and Mai Thy Truong. 

During his final months, Holbrook had gotten a tattoo of his favorite childhood story, The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein, and his family has taken solace in the final lines of this tale:

“Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest." And the boy did. And the tree was happy.”