There’s something about America that Dr. Aude Chapuis picked up on very early in her career. “You can be very spontaneous and take risks,” she said. “A lot more risks than in Europe. And people will also give you a chance.”
Fresh out of medical school in Lausanne, Switzerland, not far from where she grew up, Chapuis signed up to work in an immunology lab where researchers were studying HIV. Her soon-to-be mentor, Dr. Giuseppe Pantaleo, had just come to Lausanne after 10 years at the U.S. National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, working with the legendary AIDS researcher Dr. Anthony Fauci. Chapuis was then 23 years old and unsure where her career was going. “I had no experience whatsoever,” she recalled, “And he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll give you a chance.’ It was a fantastic two years.”
Having fallen in love with immunology, Chapuis then came to the U.S. for a fellowship at Fred Hutch and soon was making a name for herself working with Dr. Philip Greenberg on adoptive T-cell therapy for leukemia. The technique exploits the powerful disease-fighting capacity of certain white blood cells called T cells. Taken from the blood, the T cells can be genetically modified with receptors to recognize cancer cells, multiplied, and returned to the patient’s bloodstream. The key is to find the right target on the cancer, ideally a protein found on few if any healthy cells, and find the right T-cell receptors to latch onto it.
“It used to take four years to develop one T-cell receptor. Now we have the capability to develop 10 in two months,” she said. “We’re trying to find something which is safe, targets just the tumor, doesn’t involve chemotherapy, hopefully, to make the outcomes better. I think we are really on to something here.”
Getting there will involve tapping that bold, free-flowing thought that is encouraged at Fred Hutch. “There’s a lot less structure, convention, and a lot more freedom,” she said, reflecting on the differences in research cultures here and in Europe. “We’re completely free to do whatever jumps in our minds.”
— By Sabin Russell and Susan Keown, Dec. 3, 2016, updated Nov. 18, 2021