By Sara Bondell - November 05, 2021
Sara Leahey and her husband are Texans through and through. At the start of 2020, she was a researcher at MD Anderson and never had any plans to leave the state.
That changed when Leahey got a call from Dr. Patrick Hwu telling her he was taking a job as President and CEO at Moffitt Cancer Center. His lab was moving with him; would she come, too?
For the first time, Leahey pictured a life outside of Texas. It would be a major life change she probably wouldn’t even consider if it was anyone else asking. Her relationship with Hwu went back more than a decade and was mostly built outside the lab.
Leahey is a cancer survivor, and Hwu helped save her life.
‘Little rock stars’
Leahey was just 12 when she was diagnosed with stage 3b melanoma that had spread to her lymph nodes. For the first two years, she underwent multiple surgeries, high-dose interferon treatment and biochemotherapy and joined an experimental vaccine trial. Despite all the treatment, the cancer continued to grow and spread into her lungs. She was referred to a thoracic surgeon to remove the lung nodules, and her oncology care was transferred to Hwu, who specialized in immunotherapy at MD Anderson.
“Meeting him was very, very different. He was honestly the first doctor to communicate all this difficult information in a way that my 13-year-old self could understand. He explained the immune system and how it can be altered to create an army to go after the cancer,” said Leahey. “Dr. Hwu made us feel hopeful by giving us options we didn’t know were there.”
Hwu also told Leahey about his lab, and that there was a group of people behind the scenes working with him to cure her cancer. They were working on tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte (TIL) therapy, a type of immunotherapy where a patient's own immune cells are isolated and multiplied to be used to attack their cancer.
With TIL as a back-up option, Hwu started Leahey on a melanoma peptide vaccine. As Leahey entered high school, she tried to remain hopeful that this time treatment would work.
“The way Hwu managed my care, he really tried to have everything affect my life as little as possible,” said Leahey. “He always asked what I was doing and how my friends were. He wanted me to live like a kid.”
For Leahey, living like a kid meant participating in Future Farmers of America, which includes raising and auctioning livestock. After winning a Grand Championship with her goat, Leahey had an idea: what if she could raise money for Hwu’s lab?
“He always talked about his lab,” she said. “They were these little rock stars that I imagined making treatments for me in the background.”
So, when she auctioned off her steer, Hunter, at the San Antonio Livestock Show and Rodeo, she made a sign that the money would go towards cancer research. She raised $40,000, 75% of it going to Hwu’s lab.
“It was inspiring for all of us to have this young girl battle through melanoma and go out there and work her heart out to raise money for research,” said Hwu. “It was inspirational and we all benefited.”
The right path
After a second lung surgery in high school, Leahey’s disease was in remission, and Hwu and his team monitored her closely over the next few years. She had a small recurrence in 2011 after her first semester of college, but a biopsy was able to remove all of the cancer and she didn’t need any further treatment.
Leahey fell in love with science and was on track to apply for medical school. She would often talk about her future career with Hwu during their routine checkups, but he worried about her stress level and the impact it could have on her health.
“I remember him telling me there are other ways you can help patients besides being a physician,” said Leahey. “I was about to graduate, and was so stressed out studying for the MCAT. I knew I wanted to go into oncology and he said, ‘I think it would be great for you to see the other side: research.’”
Huw offered Leahey an internship in is lab in the summer of 2016, and she never left.
“When I walked in, I thought oh my goodness, this is it, this is the lab he always talked about,” she said.
After her internship, Leahey applied for a research assistantship and made the move with Hwu to Tampa earlier this year. She just celebrated being cancer-free for 10 years, and entered Moffitt's PhD Program in Cancer Biology in August.
“It is so fulfilling for me to be part of her life,” said Hwu. “She is such a passionate, deep-thinking scientist and it’s so fun to watch her grow. I saw her grow from a young girl to a young woman and now I get to see her grow into a mature scientist.”
“With Dr. Hwu’s guidance and patience, I found my path,” said Leahey. “And now, thanks to him, I have found Moffitt and I am really grateful to be working here.”