You are here

A complicated surgery sparks a professional — and personal — partnership

Kevin Kiernan and his family pledge their support for Phillip Pierorazio's efforts to identify early kidney cancer biomarkers
Posted October 12, 2017
Kevin Kiernan, right, keeps in regular touch with Phillip Pierorazio, left, the surgeon who managed the operation that saved his life. With Kiernan's family's support. Pierorazio is working to develop a urine-based test that can identify kidney cancer in its earliest stages. Kevin Kiernan, right, keeps in regular touch with Phillip Pierorazio, left, the surgeon who managed the operation that saved his life. With Kiernan's family's support. Pierorazio is working to develop a urine-based test that can identify kidney cancer in its earliest stages.

In a span of two weeks in September 2015, Kevin Kiernan discovered he had a massive kidney tumor that had spread to his heart, learned he had only a handful of days to live, flew to Johns Hopkins for a complicated 11-hour surgery, and woke up on the other side. And when he did, he had a question for his urologist, Phillip Pierorazio.

"Being exposed to a disease like this, that was asymptomatic and advanced so far without any indication — I asked Phil, 'Should I have known?' And he said, 'No,'" Kiernan recalls.

"There are no established biomarkers for early kidney cancer," explains Pierorazio, an assistant professor in the James Buchanan Brady Urological Institute. "You often don't know it's happening until it's too late. Not many people get advanced kidney cancer, but the people who do don't often survive it."

Grateful to be one of those rare survivors, and impressed by Pierorazio's management of his care, Kiernan and his family made a $1 million commitment to support the urologist's efforts to discover biomarkers and develop tests that can provide an early diagnosis of advanced kidney cancer.

"I was incredibly blessed to be able to be treated, and I'm incredibly blessed to be involved in something with someone I have an awful lot of confidence in that will help a lot of people," Kiernan says.

“The goal is, in the next 10 years, to find a urine-based biomarker for early diagnosis that becomes a standard procedure you have every five or 10 years, like a colonoscopy.”
Phillip Pierorazio

The Kiernans' gift started Pierorazio's kidney cancer biomarker program, an effort that's linked researchers in urology with specialists from nearly a dozen disciplines, including biomolecular chemistry, immuno-oncology, pathology, proteomics, and molecular imaging. Early projects have identified proteins and metabolytes — small molecules — in urine that may give the signature of a diseased kidney. Another study is focused on which genes are present in more aggressive kidney cancer and how the genes can predict outcomes when found in early-stage kidney tumors.

"These are all efforts Kevin's gift has directly paid for," Pierorazio says. Private philanthropic support is particularly crucial for kidney cancer research, he adds, because most federal funding sources are allocated based on the number of patients who suffer from diseases. Although kidney cancer is one of the highest killers (only eight percent of people with stage IV cancers survive after five years), its affected population (around 60,000 people per year)  is small compared with other cancers (breast cancer, for example, affects more than 250,000 annually). What funding is available for kidney cancer, he says, focuses on therapy and prognostication after tumors appear, not necessarily finding biomarkers that could be early detectors.

"We want to use Kevin's support as a springboard for government and other large sources of funding," Pierorazio says. "The goal is, in the next 10 years, to find a urine-based biomarker for early diagnosis that becomes a standard procedure you have every five or 10 years, like a colonoscopy. You could even have it in your physician's office."

Kiernan, who lives in Colorado, receives frequent updates on the research from Pierorazio — leaning on his son, a Hopkins alumnus who's now in medical school, to help translate the scientific language for him. Pierorazio also connects with Kiernan, who's been cancer free for more than a year, when the latter sends in his scans every three months.

But the duo also became close personally, exchanging Christmas cards and photos of Pierorazio's children and Kiernan's grandchildren. In September 2016, Pierorazio, Kiernan, and their wives met in New York City to mark the one-year anniversary of the surgery that brought them together.

"We celebrated the fact that I'd been told I had two or three weeks to live, but a year later, I had no sign of the cancer," Kiernan says. "I wouldn't like to go through cancer again, but if cancer leads to something like this, that can make an impact on others — I'm just fortunate to be alive to do that today."

To learn more about Pierorazio's research or to support the Brady Urological Institute, please contact Elissa Kohel, director of development.