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International Scholar Feature: Cancer immunotherapy research spans departments, continents

May 6, 2024

“Everyone has been impacted by cancer, directly or indirectly,” Lionel Apetoh said.

The Christopher Brown Professor of Immunology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, Apetoh speaks from experience.

His current research focuses on enhancing immune cells’ ability to combat cancer, a path he was inspired to pursue after losing his own mother to breast cancer.

Lionel Apetoh Lionel Apetoh researches T-cells, which are pivotal players in the body's immune response against disease, notably cancer. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

Apetoh’s interest in immunology was sparked by his high school courses in his native France and continued through his undergraduate research at the University of Strasbourg. When he stumbled upon an advertisement for a Ph.D. program in oncology and immunology at the University of Paris, he saw it as a perfect fit for his interests, combining his passion for understanding the immune system’s role in disease with his desire to contribute to advancements in cancer treatment.

He was particularly drawn to understanding the communication between different cells of the immune system, recognizing its importance in the collaborative effort to fight disease. Through his Ph.D. research, he revealed a crucial insight: Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation don’t act alone in fighting cancer. Instead, they interact with the body’s immune response, which can either enhance or impede their effectiveness.

“A lot of what we’re doing is trying to answer the question, ‘Is there a way to predict what will happen when administering treatments?’” he said. “Can we predict how an individual will respond to treatment?”

By studying how the body’s pre-existing defense mechanisms interact with treatments, his research furthers collective efforts to fight cancer more effectively for every individual’s needs.

Apetoh’s academic journey has led him through various institutions. He has conducted research at Gustave Roussy, the largest cancer center in Europe; conducted post-doctoral research at Harvard Medical School; and established a lab in Inserm, a public research institute within the French Ministries of Health and Research.

He is continuing his public-institution research legacy at the IU Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Brown Center for Immunotherapy, which translates IU research into clinical trials targeting multiple myeloma and triple negative breast cancer — two conditions that often resist standard cancer treatment.

Apetoh’s research at the Brown Center is part of his ongoing investigation on T-cells, which are pivotal players in the body’s immune response against disease, notably cancer. He and his fellow researchers are trying to improve the efficacy and power of these white blood cells to make chemotherapy more effective and to better predict how well a treatment will work on different patients.

His findings contribute valuable insights to enhance the efficacy of promising cancer vaccines. In their collaborative efforts, Apetoh’s research in fortifying immune cells to combat cancer intersects with the pioneering work of IU School of Medicine professor Pravin Kaumaya, a renowned expert in cancer vaccine development and director of the Immuno-Oncology and Vaccine Immunotherapy Laboratory in the Brown Center.

Kaumaya’s innovative vaccines are designed to instruct the immune system to target specific proteins, a strategy that aligns closely with Apetoh’s investigations into enhancing immune cell communication and precision targeting against cancer.

Apetoh is deeply committed to engaging with both local and global communities, fostering collaboration between scientists and advocating for scientific outreach, including visits to high schools to explain research in layman’s terms.

“Collaboration is key across departments,” Apetoh said. “For instance, findings from immunology can directly benefit colleagues in neuroscience. At IU, research in any department can positively impact every other department.”


IU Global

Lexi Baker

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