Profile: Tyler Curiel

  • Posted 01.10.06
  • NOVA scienceNOW

(This video is no longer available for streaming.) Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on scientific and medical research in the New Orleans region. In the midst of the disaster, Dr. Tyler Curiel, the Chief of Hematology and Medical Oncology at Tulane University, did all that he could to salvage precious samples of cancer cells. The cells could shed light on a deadly disease called Sino Nasal Undifferentiated Carcinoma, and they carried special meaning for Curiel because they came from his beloved student Andy Martin, who died of the disease a year before the hurricane struck.

Running Time: 09:43



PBS Airdate: January 10, 2006

ROBERT KRULWICH: For a whole lot of reasons—meteorological, political, engineering reasons—Hurricane Katrina was a major, major science story last year.

But now, we're going to add one more reason. We're going to tell you a Katrina story about a young man who got very sick, but he had one bit of luck. He had a very unusual friend, Dr. Tyler Curiel. Hold on a second, he's a hard man to keep up with. He runs 100 mile marathons. This is a man who's on his very own path; he goes where he wants to go.

Now he's the Chief of Hematology and Medical Oncology at Tulane University where he runs a lab that specializes in immune cells.

TYLER CURIEL (Tulane University School of Medicine): We look at the human immune response to cancers and to infections.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But Tyler had never seen anything or anyone like Andy Martin. In 2000, Andy Martin, from California, was just about to start medical school at Tulane.

ANDY MARTIN : A week before I started my first year, it showed up. I was on a vacation, like a last hurrah vacation, and I started getting nosebleeds.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Andy was diagnosed with a very rare and very deadly cancer, called S.N.U.C.

TYLER CURIEL: S.N.U.C. is Sino Nasal Undifferentiated Carcinoma. Andy decided that he wanted to do research on his own cancer. He persuaded me to allow us to biopsy his tumor.


AVRIL JENSEN (Andy Martin's sister): "If this cancer's going to get me, damn it, I'm going to go down fighting, you know, and make a difference, so that future people who are diagnosed with this don't have the same outcome that I had."

ROBERT KRULWICH: The student and his mentor worked side by side to try to find a treatment, even though both of them knew that Andy didn't have much time.

AVRIL JENSEN: Tyler and him had a really good friendship, as well as, you know, this amazing medical experience together.

RUTH BERGGREN (Tyler Curiel's wife): Andy came over to our house for dinner many times. He enjoyed wine-tasting; particularly he was fond of ports.

ROBERT KRULWICH: When Andy was about to undergo chemotherapy and lose his taste, Tyler, a bit of a connoisseur, threw a wine-tasting party. And Andy's classmates shaved their heads in solidarity. Andy is the bald guy in the middle.

And the doctor raised money for his student's research by breaking a world's record: he dribbled a basketball for 24 hours, while running a total of 108 miles.

AVRIL JENSEN: He's crazy.

ROBERT KRULWICH: They generated a living cell line from Andy's tumor, the only known cell line of S.N.U.C. in the world. And those cells outlived Andy. Already very sick, Andy Martin left home to visit friends at Tulane when he was overcome by cancer, in November, 2004.

AVRIL JENSEN: When it came to that week, Tyler kind of took over as his personal physician. And he was there every day at least one time, sometimes more. He, he passed away on a Friday night in New Orleans.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And when Hurricane Katrina struck at the heart of New Orleans, Tulane University was right in its path. People, homes and property were in serious danger and so was a lot of science. Tyler decided to stay in his lab through the storm.

He was joined by his colleague and his neighbor at the lab, Mike Brumlik. Together, they were determined to protect the millions of dollars of equipment there, and the research and Andy Martin's cells.

MIKE BRUMLIK (Tulane University School of Medicine): These cells were very important. There was...this was personal.

TYLER CURIEL: ...number one thing I knew we had to save was we had to get the Andy Martin S.N.U.C. cells out.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Their plan was simple. Keep all of the samples dry and cold enough to survive just a brief loss of power. They spent the whole weekend hard at work.

TYLER CURIEL: We had consolidated all of our things into three or four freezers.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Monday morning, the storm brought winds stronger than 150 miles an hour.

TYLER CURIEL: It was like The Wizard of Oz. We'd look out the window and gigantic pieces of buildings would just go blowing by.

ROBERT KRULWICH: By the time the storm ended, their building was running on an emergency generator, but the samples were fine. Tyler went to the phone to tell friends everything was okay.

TYLER CURIEL: Mike Brumlik walked into my office—we're in Tulane Medical School, in my office—and he said, "You might want to look out the window."

MIKE BRUMLIK: And he does this. And, uh, of course, his jaw drops, because he realizes what...more or less what I realized, which is that we're in very deep trouble.

TYLER CURIEL: I looked out the window and saw that we were flooded. I had no idea. As far as our research goes, this is the worst-case scenario. It doesn't get any worse.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Suddenly, it's a race against time. The men try to move a 400-pound freezer down six stories, and across this pedway, to the building next door which has better emergency power.

It takes them all day to move the samples. And when they finally make it to the other building, the generator there is almost under water.

MIKE BRUMLIK: The generator is not in a safe place. Six more inches of water rising and the generator is toast, so we are effectively doomed at this point.

TYLER CURIEL: You don't want to be melodramatic, but I was thinking, this is my whole life's work, and it's melting.

MIKE BRUMLIK: And the power fails at about 5 p.m. on Tuesday. And that's it. The only place to save anything cold is the liquid nitrogen tanks.

ROBERT KRULWICH: The problem is liquid nitrogen will evaporate, which means the samples have maybe 10 days, and then they'll melt.

TYLER CURIEL: And you're looking around, the city's flooded, you're thinking, it's going to be months before we can come back in. We had no idea.

ROBERT KRULWICH: The next morning, after Tyler and Mike had packed everything they could into the liquid nitrogen, they get another surprise; this one comes in uniform.

TYLER CURIEL: You've got two minutes to get out and evacuate or you're going in handcuffs. It was...bang...and then, they've got big rifles on their back. And you don't argue with people like this. I couldn't find my shoes. And I kept telling them, I'm just looking for my shoes. And they said, "Buddy, you're going in the cuffs." We left our food behind, we left our water behind, and we were off.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Tyler was headed to Charity Hospital, where there were still hundreds of patients.

TYLER CURIEL: I had been there a few times and saw how desperate conditions were. Mike said, "If you're going to Charity, I'm going to Charity."

MIKE BRUMLIK: I had done everything I could do to protect the science. And now it was time to help people.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Tyler and Mike hopped into a canoe they had been keeping handy.

TYLER CURIEL: ...shove off and we'd paddle right out through that exit right there.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And then they paddled a couple of blocks down to Charity, where Tyler's wife, Ruth Berggren, was one of the doctors in charge.

RUTH BERGGREN: He said, "What can I do for you?" And I thought about it, and I said, "Honestly, I need you to go fetch water." So here's my brilliant husband, the scientist, the immunologist. He actually said to me, he said, "I'm a perfect person for this job."

ROBERT KRULWICH: By now, these guys had seen just about everything.

TYLER CURIEL: We had already been flooded in for four or five days. Food was low, water was low; we had been without electricity for a number of days. It was very hot. Conditions were terrible.

ROBERT KRULWICH: They had successfully evacuated the patients at Charity Hospital.

TYLER CURIEL: So I realized, you know, time's up. You have to go.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But remember, the clock was ticking. It had been three days since Tyler put his lab samples into the liquid nitrogen. He had a week, maybe less, to keep them from melting, including the cells of Andy Martin.

AVRIL JENSEN: It was scary. It was a very scary time. And my mom even said it's like Andy dying all over again.

ROBERT KRULWICH: From Dallas, Tyler worked the phones for almost a week. He got a jet, coolers. And now he and Mike raced back to New Orleans.

MIKE BRUMLIK: Now the lab smells bad because we have freezer stuff and fridge stuff that's perished, so it doesn't smell pretty. But preying on our mind is, "Did the nitrogen make it?"

TYLER CURIEL: And we had the three liquid nitrogen containers lined up, one, two, three. I turned to Mike. I said, "Mike, I'm going to lift the lid, and if it's warm in there and the samples are thawed, game's over." And he said, "Do it."

MIKE BRUMLIK: Together we lift the lid and this plume of, of, of vapor hits us in the face.

TYLER CURIEL: It was really cold. It was really white. That's what it's supposed to look like.

ROBERT KRULWICH: By chance, out of all the samples inside all three freezers, the first box that Tyler pulled out contained Andy Martin's cells, frozen, safe and sound.

AVRIL JENSEN: I was calling everybody. Oh, they made it out!

TYLER CURIEL: So we were high-fiving and just going, "Yeah!"

AVRIL JENSEN: One of the port wines that Andy liked, he actually had a bottle, and it's still at my parents' house. And Tyler had made some crack about celebrating, and I said, "Well, I have one of Andy's bottles of Fonseco, you know? I can ship it to you, wherever you want." He said, "No, I'd like if you would save that, and we can all celebrate together when we see each other again."

ROBERT KRULWICH: Andy's cells were saved, but Tyler lost a lot of research. And he's not alone.

TYLER CURIEL: My sense is that we've lost millions of dollars worth of research, thousands of man-hours of research. And then you multiply that times hundreds of investigators. And it's staggering.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But Tyler knows how to stay on his feet.

TYLER CURIEL (Turning car ignition on): How about that?

ROBERT KRULWICH: His home wasn't too damaged. And he had to shift his lab work to different cities for a while. But New Orleans is calling, and it won't be long before Tyler's whole operation is back up and running.


Profile: Tyler Curiel

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0229297. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

© 2006 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

Image credit: (glacier) © (Tyler Curiel) Courtesy Bounce for Life


Ruth Berggren
Associate Professor of Medicine, Charity Hospital and Tulane Medical Center
Michael Brumlik
Tulane University School of Medicine
Tyler Curiel
Section Chief of the Hematology and Medical Oncology Research Laboratories, Tulane University School of Medicine

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