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Fabrice Barlesi: helping to cure cancer in the 21st century

Researcher portraits Article published on 09 February 2023 , Updated on 16 February 2023

Fabrice Barlesi is Professor of Medicine at Université Paris-Saclay and General Director of Gustave Roussy. He specialises in lung cancer, precision medicine and cancer immunology and is involved in the development of innovative cancer therapies.

Fabrice Barlesi is passionate about science and human relations and began his medical studies at Aix-Marseille University in 1989. He started his internship in 1994 and defended his PhD thesis in 1999. His thesis focused on how best to tailor and personalise treatment strategies in thoracic oncology using patient data. This work was rewarded with a gold medal from the university, giving him the opportunity to extend his internship for a year in the Department of Oncology at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, Canada.

Back in France in 2000, Fabrice Barlesi was appointed Clinical Director of the universities - Assistant of Hospitals in Marseille, then, in 2004, he joined the oncology team of the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam (Netherlands). He returned to Marseille the following year as a lecturer and hospital consultant, and at the same time completed a Master's degree in general hospital management at ESSEC Business School in 2008, so he could prepare to lead teams. He was appointed Professor in 2009, and his managerial ambitions were achieved in 2010 when he created the Multidisciplinary Oncology and Innovative Therapies Department at the Nord Hospital in Marseille. In 2011, he founded the Marseille Centre for Early Trials in Oncology, which was certified by the National Cancer Institute (INCa) as an early-phase clinical trial centre (CLIP2) in 2015 and 2019.


Understanding for healing

"The research that motivates me is that which gives me direct contact with patients," says Fabrice Barlesi. He aims to understand the biological mechanisms behind the aggressiveness of bronchial cancers in order to develop early diagnoses and implement technological resources capable of providing appropriate therapeutic responses as quickly as possible. "Because, despite the progress made in thoracic oncology thanks to targeted therapies and immunotherapy, bronchial cancer remains a very common disease, affecting 48,000 people in France each year and unfortunately often fatal."


Two key areas: precision medicine and early clinical trials

"Today, we have a better understanding of what cancer is. It is an association of diseases, sometimes rare, classified by molecular characteristics," explains the specialist. By approaching the study of tumours through their biological characterisation, it is possible to segment groups of patients and tailor their treatments. Each tumour is a unique combination of features (genetic alteration, epigenetics, immune mechanism, etc.). “Bronchial cancer is one of the most developed models with more than a dozen identified molecular alterations, for which targeted treatments exist." Precision medicine therefore involves understanding how these treatments work for some and not for others, and developing adaptive and personalised therapeutic strategies. To achieve this, the researcher promotes early clinical trials in which new molecules are tested on patients to evaluate their effects and efficacy and contribute to the development of innovative cancer therapies.


Significant research activity that has been extensively rewarded

Fabrice Barlesi has conducted prolific research activity, with more than 430 publications in the field of clinical trials, the title of Highly Cited Researcher - the ranking of the most cited scientists in the world - since 2019, and his work as primary investigator in several clinical trials. Until recently, this research was primarily carried out within the precision medicine team at the Marseille Cancer Research Centre (CRCM). "I created and developed the thoracic oncology department there in 2015, focusing in particular on predictive genomic signatures of brain metastases and their use on circulating DNA."

Also noteworthy are collaborations with mathematicians from Aix-Marseille University to model the biological processes of cancer, determine their evolution in silico (via numerical avatars of the disease) and identify the best way to treat patients. Between 2014 and 2017, Fabrice Barlesi also won several calls for proposals from A*Midex, Aix-Marseille University's Excellence Initiative. In 2015, he co-founded the Marseille Immunopôle (MI) cluster, a public-private partnership dedicated to the development of immunotherapy. "Building on this, we applied to the Hospital-University Health Research (RHU) call for proposals with the Pioneer project, which aimed to understand, circumvent and resolve the mechanisms of resistance to anti-PD-1 (Programmed cell death protein 1) and anti-PD-L1 (Programmed death - ligand 1) antibodies in non-small cell lung cancer." These antibodies block PD-1/PD-L1 interaction (immune checkpoint) inactivating negative feedback of immune system activation, and cause tumour cell death, in particular via cytotoxic T lymphocytes. Fabrice Barlesi has received numerous awards in recognition of his research, including the Heine H. Hansen (HHH) Award in 2018, and the Daniel C. Ihde Lectureship Award for Medical Oncology in 2021, from the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) and the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer (IASLC).


The management of Gustave Roussy

In 2020, Fabrice Barlesi was invited to join Gustave Roussy, the leading cancer centre in Europe and the third largest in the world, as Medical and Clinical Research Director. "I made this decision as a result of my friendship with Jean-Charles Soria, the Centre's General Director at the time, and because I saw this opportunity as a new and exciting challenge." In 2021, when his friend left, he took over the management of Gustave Roussy, and in 2022 was transferred to the Faculty of Medicine of Université Paris-Saclay to continue his academic duties.

His ambition for Gustave Roussy is to develop, in the context of Université Paris-Saclay, a true cancer campus dedicated to care and research in oncology, particularly interdisciplinary, and new therapeutic strategies, while increasing the centre's international impact. Fabrice Barlesi hopes that new research buildings will soon be built to house a new university hospital institute (IHU). The researcher also wants to promote the education and appeal of Gustave Roussy's talents in France and abroad. "Working with our teams, I want to continue the role that Gustave Roussy has pursued for a hundred years of caring for patients living with cancer; to this, I will add the goal of developing our expertise to find a cure for cancer in the 21st century."


Paris-Saclay Cancer Cluster

Fabrice Barlesi helped to create the Paris Saclay Cancer Cluster (PSCC) in 2022, co-founded by Université Paris-Saclay, Gustave Roussy, École polytechnique, Inserm and Sanofi. Created as part of the France 2030 programme, this oncology research centre aims to concentrate research activities and academic and industrial talent so that new drugs can be developed quickly. "We have a very high level of research in France, but a more limited capacity for using it. This initiative, which is unprecedented in France, aims to give the country back a degree of independence in cancer treatment."


Fabrice Barlesi (c)Gustave Roussy