February 02, 2022
Cancer immunologist: Research at MD Anderson is my calling
BY Alexandre Reuben, Ph.D.
I'm an immunologist and a T cell biologist. My work pushes our understanding of how the immune system recognizes and destroys tumors. My lab seeks to develop new immunotherapies to target lung cancer and improve existing therapies so that they’re more efficient.
First encounters at MD Anderson
I’m from Montreal. When I was in college, I already had a strong interest in science, so my uncle, James Reuben, Ph.D., proposed that I apply to summer research program at MD Anderson. He is a faculty member in Hematopathology at MD Anderson.
During the summer of 2006, I came to MD Anderson, where I got exposure to a lab in Experimental Therapeutics. That experience gave me an opportunity to see firsthand the type of work being done here.
After I was exposed to MD Anderson’s approach to research and the proximity between scientists and clinicians, I became hooked on this environment and the opportunities it provides. That first summer, I completely fell in love with the field and MD Anderson’s approach to cancer research.
My return to MD Anderson for postdoctoral training
After I finished my doctorate in Canada, I started looking for postdoc opportunities. I interviewed at multiple places, including the National Institutes of Health and MD Anderson.
At MD Anderson, I was put in touch with the team at the Wargo Lab, led by Jennifer Wargo, M.D. They were doing astounding work studying the microbiome, and their research has progressed exponentially since. They’re uncovering mechanisms of response and resistance to immunotherapy and identifying new biomarkers. When I learned about the existence of the tumor microbiome and their work to investigate its impact, I was sold.
As a postdoc, I don’t think there’s a better environment than MD Anderson. No matter what facet of cancer you’re interested in, there's someone here who’s an expert and is excited to train the next generation.
An offer to become a faculty member
Toward the end of my postdoc training, my wife and I were in a long-distance relationship and we needed to make a call on what was next for our future. I was thrilled to get an offer from John Heymach, M.D., Ph.D., to join the Thoracic/Head and Neck Medical Oncology faculty at MD Anderson, but that meant moving our lives permanently from Canada to Houston.
My belief in the work that we’re doing here and the impact it’s making on patients’ lives convinced my wife to give up everything and move down here.
Proximity to patients helps focus and accelerate research
For me, the proximity to patients was one of the most important factors in choosing to work here.
As a scientist, I’m curious. Because there is still so much to discover out there, it’s easy for me to get distracted and off course. But being in this environment and working so closely with my clinical colleagues helps keep me focused.
I put my energy, my ideas and our resources into research that can help our patients as soon as possible. That's invaluable to me, and that's something that I wasn’t getting elsewhere. The close tie between the clinic and the bench is a rare find that helps set the pace of our work. We’re doing this for our patients.
Establishing the Reuben Lab to advance lung cancer research
Once I’d joined the faculty at MD Anderson, I started the Reuben Lab. As with many cancer types, treating lung cancer can be challenging because although there are some great first-line therapies for most patients, they can eventually stop working. There’s a significant need for subsequent therapies.
To overcome that challenge, my lab is identifying antigens on tumors that are prevalent in lung cancer. We’re then developing T cell receptors that can recognize those antigens with the intent to genetically engineer T cells to target those antigens and eliminate a patient’s cancer.
We’ve made good progress with multiple common targets. And thanks to the bridge between the labs and the clinics at MD Anderson, we hope to get these new therapies to patients quickly.
Houston offers opportunities for collaboration across the Texas Medical Center
At MD Anderson, we have a rich community of experts that we can call upon for collaboration. We also partner with institutions in the Texas Medical Center and across Houston. For example, one of our projects aims to identify immune cells that are most relevant to a patient’s tumor using novel approaches that we're developing in-house with insights from external collaborators. For insights on microfluidics, we’ve collaborated with The University of Texas Health Science Center, and for engineering expertise, we turned to Rice University, which is just down the street. The goal is to develop microfluidics devices that allow us to streamline the process and make it easier to reproduce.
We’re able to collaborate across the hall or across the street, not halfway across the country. I think that’s a main asset that propels the work that we’re doing.
Pursuing my calling
I’ve made a lot of connections here, and I've been fortunate to be a part of a lot of important studies. It’s very rewarding and, honestly, it has been a blast.
As a researcher, I’m convinced that I have something to contribute to improve patient care. I'm confident that at MD Anderson, I'm going to be able to make that mark.
Learn about research careers at MD Anderson.
I've been fortunate to be a part of a lot of important studies.
Alexandre Reuben, Ph.D.