Excessive serendipity rusting the stoicism of a scientific mind

Richard T. McKernan was an amazing father, leader, dry humor professional and exceptional businessman.
A Nittany Lion engineer with a background in nuclear physics, he worked hard, built businesses and steered start-ups into many successful stories.

His life science background and leadership at Packard Biosciences stimulated my career in 1991 when he would fax Bioworld Today to my college address at Emory. My friends would laugh at it.

One of those articles had a discussion about the human genome project and I somehow found myself luckily working on that very project shortly after graduating. It was my fathers enthusiasm for this future that nudged me in this direction.

By the time he was 40 he began getting Atrial fibrillation. My sister was also influenced by our fathers ambitious scientific mind. She pursued medical school at UPenn specialized in Electrocardiology. This proved to be prescient.

After the human genome project, my brothers and I decided to license some technology from MIT and start a genomics company. Without our fathers guidance it would have been a disaster.

Agencourt Bioscience became a leader in DNA sequencing and DNA isolation products. With our father, always reminding us to never run out of cash, we luckily broke into the black in 18 months and found ourselves with exceptional opportunities. Without his guidance, we were lost and of course he would never admit to this.

At a moment in time we began building new DNA sequencers powerful enough to sequence an entire human genome and its tumor genome in one shot.

Another company was born and this quickly threw ourselves into the next generation genomics race in 2003.
Labs were buying the SOLiD sequencer powerhouses by the dozen and sequencing tumors for the hope of more targeted cancer treatment. It was hope, adrenaline and a genomics renaissance unfolding where the tumors were no longer spoken about in respect to their tissue of origin but the genomic coordinates of their mutational burden.

One of the more memorable projects we published with Johns Hopkins University. It was sequencing circulating tumor DNA in cancer patients’ blood stream to track and treat cancer. I didn’t expect to use this on family members at the time. Cancer ,we felt, was being given a death blow with these new tools….or so we thought.

In my late thirties I had many friends with early cancer take interest in our sequencing work and they began asking me about cannabis and cancer. I became very intrigued.
We could pinpoint the causative cancer mutation with these new sequencers but had nothing but poison to pick from the pharmacy.

After 5 years at ABI/Lifetech working to advance cancer genomics, it was time shift from disease detection to treatment. I had read deeply into the antineoplastic activity of cannabinoids and could see next gen sequencing cancer tumors was only going to be useful if we had safer drugs to pair with it and I decided to sequence the cannabis genome and put it public in 2011.

The genome had never been sequenced before due to prohibition and we didn’t understand which genes made the cannabinoids.

Ironically, to diffuse the controversy of this project we armed every reporter that called to ridicule the career suicide move with the papers demonstrating cannabinoids can shrink tumors and that 1 in 3 people will get cancer in their lifetime. This was not a Cheech and Chong Project. It was serious and required science in order to drive safety and confidence for cancer patients. We just didn’t expect cancer to knock on our door so quickly.

This was a shocker for many people who still had skeptical beliefs over this plant, including my father.

Rightfully so.. the world was fed 82 years of lies and this project open my eyes and changed my world view regarding political corruption like I never could have expected.


Nevertheless 2011 was too early. We formed Medicinal Genomics and realized we had great ideas but regulatory risk everywhere.

We decided to pivot the company into sequencing patients that have Endocannabinoid based disease like Epilepsy, Autism and Mito disease.

For 5 years we sequenced the genomes of thousands of patients to personalize their disease management and during this time our father’s AFib started to show up in his kids.

We naturally sequenced everyones genome in our family and the mutations that showed up were RYR2 and CaV1.2. Opposing Calcium channel mutations and bilateral inheritance explained why the drugs that worked on our father didn’t work on the next generation.

One compound continued to pop out in the literature but we all sensed the confirmation bias in this work… Cannabidiol. Paper after paper pointed to its important role in regulating calcium and we have calcium channel mutations. Epilepsy was also often a disease of calcium channel mutations and we witnessed so much progress there with patients.


We tried it. It worked! Immediately. We could watch the effect on real time iPhone based EKGs. It was amazing. Until Sanjay Gupta and CNN hit the air with their eye opening WEED documentary regarding epilepsy. This creates nationwide CBD shortages.

The A-Fib came back in this drought. The case study was selected for presentation at the International Cannabinoid Research Society in 2015. It was not a hippy’s excuse for Weed but a well formulated genomics deep dive into the endocannabinoid system.

What are the odds of this series of events? Is this pure serendipity or is there something larger at play? Scientists are chastised for hypotheticals they can’t prove or explain but I’ve come to learn that’s where the best discoveries occur.

While this was a victory many chalked up to confirmation bias, the serendipity wouldn’t leave us alone.

A few years later the tools I was working on at Life Tech became common practice in cancer management. A Foundation Medicine report and a Johns Hopkins sequencing effort highlighted mutations in our fathers prostate biopsy in mTOR and BRAF K601E.

They called for AKT1 inhibitors but none were through the FDA…. all in Phase 2B clinical trial with small N numbers.
Google AKT1 and Cannabinoids and of course there are many papers demonstrating successful antineoplastic activity of cannabinoids on prostate cancer cell lines. Cannabinoids turn out to be potent AKT1 inhibitors and they have virtually no toxicity.

What are the odds? Again?

For 3.5 years Richard T. McKernan had bone cancer all over his body but had little pain.

Western medicine only had drugs that presented more pain and nausea. Every drug they offered presented side effects that mimicked the progression of the disease. We had no idea if the meds were helping or accelerating the disease progression and we would use Cannabinoids (lots of them) to fight back the pain and chemotherapy induced cachexia. Hospital staff and hospice care had never seen full body bone mets that didn’t have morphine drips. He was an outlier and throughout several times during his fight he was able to walk and drive and live his life. None of that was expected with Gleason scores of 9 and PSA scores over 150.

He passed in peace without pain despite full body bone mets. His comfort and relief from nausea was largely due to his cannabinoid therapy. Surrounded by his family in his lake house in Wolfeboro NH, Richard T McKernan passed the same day as his good friend Blair Beach. They are having fun now. It was painful to watch but a beautiful relief. Nurses are angels.

While these events will be chalked up by any stoic scientist as mere coincidence, it does not appear that way to me. Good science , the kind that change our understanding of the world, requires a mental leap of faith and probing of the universe around you In ways that challenge current dogma.
Faith is required to explore the void and this series of events has me more curious about this realm than ever before. May more life sciences bring more answers and more compassion for these devastating diseases.

Our father was born on Oct 1, 1937.

This was the day they made cannabis illegal 82 years ago. That’s a long time to be scientifically wrong. There is such a thing as blind faith in science. It’s often perniciously weaponized in cult like public consensus and it’s the main reason to remain open minded with some faith… for the open minded are the true life scientists.

Rest In Peace father
You have earned it.


Bretigne Shaffer

May 4 · 

This is an incredible tribute – wrapped up in a tale of the world of medical statism we live in, and the harm it does. Please read the whole thing:

“While these events will be chalked up by any stoic scientist as mere coincidence, it does not appear that way to me. 

“Good science , the kind that change our understanding of the world, requires a mental leap of faith and probing of the universe around you In ways that challenge current dogma.
Faith is required to explore the void and this series of events has me more curious about this realm than ever before. May more life sciences bring more answers and more compassion for these devastating diseases.
Our father was born on Oct 1, 1937.

“This was the day they made cannabis illegal 82 years ago. That’s a long time to be scientifically wrong. There is a such thing as blind faith in science. It’s often perniciously weaponized in cult like public consensus and it’s the main reason to remain open minded with some faith… for the open minded are the true life scientists.”