Part 1 in our new “Rising Stars” series featuring – Dr. Tyler Parsons
Written by Heidi Cascarano and David Wallace
Early Blood Clot Mysteries
Like many MPN patients, Tyler’s journey to diagnosis was a long and winding road, marked by mysterious symptoms that remained unexplained for years. For Tyler, these symptoms took the form of puzzling blood clots. He was only 17 when he first experienced a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) in his leg—a blood clot that typically forms in the deep veins of the body, usually the legs.
As an athlete, Tyler initially dismissed the pain, swelling, and redness as a typical sports injury and tried to push through it. However, as his ability to train and practice diminished, he eventually sought help, leading to a diagnosis of DVT. He was treated with heparin and coumadin until the clot subsided. Although tested for clotting disorders, the results were negative.
While pursuing his college education, Tyler faced another DVT in his leg. This time, the clot was again attributed to a recurring sports-related vascular injury. Further tests for clotting disorders yielded negative results. Tyler was treated with Eliquis (apixaban) until the clot was no longer detectable on a sonogram.
At the time, Tyler was working towards his undergraduate degree in biology, with plans to attend law school and prepare for a career in intellectual property law, specifically in the biotech and pharmaceutical sectors. However, during his junior year, fate had other plans.
Discovering a Passion for Cancer Research
In Tyler’s own words, “I enjoyed science and biology, but I hadn’t quite fallen in love with it (yet). Then, I enrolled in an advanced cancer biology class, and the professor, Dr. Gerard Madlambayan, presented the subject matter in a way I had never encountered before. He approached cancer biology like a captivating story, and I eagerly anticipated each new ‘chapter.’ I had never been so thoroughly engaged by a lecture course. Throughout the semester, Dr. Madlambayan and I continued our discussions beyond the classroom, delving into cancer pathways, gaps in current knowledge, and potential research questions to address those gaps. He then asked if I would be interested in shadowing some of the work being conducted in his lab.”
Tyler’s introduction to the lab focused on the role of stem cells in solid tumors, both before and after radiation therapy. It didn’t take long for him to realize that his true passion lay in biomedical research. As he began his PhD studies at Oakland University and the Beaumont Research Institute, investigating the role of stem cells in solid tumors, Dr. Madlambayan served as his dissertation advisor. At the time, Tyler had no idea just how crucial this education would become in his life.
A Turning Point: More Severe Symptoms
As Tyler neared the end of his PhD program and began interviewing for postdoctoral research fellowship positions, he started experiencing abdominal pain. Amidst the demanding period, his physician attributed the discomfort to stress and decided to consult a gastroenterologist. After examining Tyler’s medical records, including his history of DVTs, the doctor deemed it wise to investigate potential clots in his abdomen. Shockingly, Tyler was found to have a severe portal vein thrombosis from the portal vein in the liver to the mesentery, and into the spleen. His spleen was enlarged, and his liver was oxygen-deprived due to the widespread clotting. This daunting medical ordeal was not only frightening and overwhelming, but it also emerged at a particularly stressful juncture in his life when he was determining his career path.
The Life-Changing Diagnosis: Polycythemia Vera
At the hospital, a hematology fellow recommended testing Tyler for the JAK2V617F mutation, a test he had not previously undergone. The results came back positive for the mutation, and a bone marrow biopsy confirmed a diagnosis of polycythemia vera. Tyler promptly sought the expertise of an MPN specialist, and together they decided on a treatment plan that included Pegasys, Eliquis, and therapeutic phlebotomies. Therapeutic phlebotomy is a standard treatment for polycythemia, aimed at maintaining safe hemoglobin and hematocrit levels while helping to prevent blood clot formation.
A New Mission: MPN Research
The diagnosis of a Myeloproliferative Neoplasm came as a shock, altering the course of Tyler’s life once more. A cancer diagnosis of any kind is undoubtedly frightening, but thankfully, Tyler’s education and proactive approach served him well. According to Tyler, the natural choice was to dedicate his future research to MPNs. He accepted a position at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, working in Dr. Grant Challen’s lab. Tyler’s ambitious aim is to understand the progression of MPNs to secondary leukemia, potentially leading to earlier disease detection and enhanced disease surveillance.
Tyler points out that there are various subtypes of MPNs, which means different driving mutations are involved. He aspires to comprehend how those subtypes and their associated mutant clones interact with JAK2 and promote the development of leukemic mutations. Tyler emphasizes his passion for “improving patient outcomes by advancing our understanding of both the biology and disease evolution of MPNs.” This lofty goal brings great hope to the MPN patient community!
He was recently awarded a 3-year fellowship by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) to ensure his work on MPN to AML remains funded and at the forefront of his research efforts.
On the clinical front, Tyler is under the care of an exceptional MPN specialist. He transitioned from Pegasys to BESREMi when it received FDA approval for the treatment of PV. Additionally, he continues taking Eliquis to prevent further blood clot formation.
A Balanced Life
Tyler’s future plans are still taking shape, but he is certain about his intention to become a principal investigator and continue teaching. As an adjunct professor, he genuinely enjoys the teaching aspect of his career. His ultimate goal is to make the most significant impact possible, both as a professor and as a mentor in the lab. Tyler also has a keen interest in exploring the progression of MPNs to leukemia, an area that has not been extensively studied.
Despite his busy schedule conducting research to help other MPN patients and focusing on maintaining his own health, Tyler still finds joy in life alongside his wife and dogs in their vibrant Midwestern city. They take pleasure in discovering parks, trying out unique restaurants, and cooking at home.
Advice for MPN Patients
Tyler’s foremost advice for other patients is to seek out an MPN specialist who remains up to date with the latest research trends. Having such an expert in your corner not only provides invaluable support but also ensures access to the most effective treatments available. Additionally, Tyler encourages MPN patients to maintain open communication with their physicians regarding any secondary issues they may be experiencing, whether as side effects from their primary diagnosis or their current treatment. These issues can often be managed, but it’s crucial for the physician to be aware of them.
A Personal Journey Shapes a Research Career
In his younger years, Tyler could never have anticipated that the symptoms he experienced would take him on a challenging journey filled with uncertainty, ultimately leading to a blood cancer diagnosis. Nor could he have predicted how this diagnosis would reshape his life’s course, directing him towards researching a rare disease. His work holds the potential to significantly impact the diagnosis and treatment of MPNs and leukemia.
Tyler’s story underscores the profound influence of personal experiences in molding one’s career and life’s purpose, as well as the critical role of resilience and determination when confronting adversity. As both a patient and a researcher, Tyler stands as a shining example for the MPN community and beyond.