TU alumnus and Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree at the leading edge of oncology research
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TU alumnus and Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree at the leading edge of oncology research

young man with very short hair, smiling while wearing glasses and an open-collar, button-down blue shirt
Caleb Lareau

There are many reasons why University of Tulsa alumnus Caleb Lareau (BS ’15) might be a familiar name. Most recently, the one that vaulted him into high-octane national awareness was his inclusion in Forbes’ prestigious 30 Under 30 list.

Currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford University School of Medicine, Lareau received this accolade in recognition of his research and potential in the field of cancer-focused immunotherapy. “While I knew I was a finalist, I didn’t actually know I’d made the list until I woke up one morning and saw myself on the website – and felt a wave of surprise and excitement,” Lareau remarked. “I’m hopeful that this public profile might help to expedite some of my scientific goals, including raising funds for the pressing questions that I want to answer.”

Beyond the potential for financial support, there is an even more powerful benefit Lareau hopes will spring from his Forbes recognition. “One of the major motivators to do what I do every day is that there is still so much we don’t understand about human disease, and we still have a long way to go to prevent tragedies, such as happened to our family friend Sarah Harmon (BS ’21), who passed away unexpectedly last December” said Lareau. What means “the most” to him about this honor “is the hope that I can catalyze my profile into more meaningful opportunities to research and develop new treatments for complex disease.”

Creativity and problem-solving: The TU foundation

Life as a Forbes honoree and postdoctoral cancer researcher at one of the country’s top universities is a few miles away from Lareau’s more prosaic origins.

Born in a quiet corner of the Great Plains, Lareau spent most of his formative years in tiny Hugoton, Kansas (“just north of 3,000 inhabitants”), and slightly larger Enid, Oklahoma. But even during high school, Lareau knew he wanted someday to become a scientific researcher.

For that reason, he ultimately chose TU to begin his academic journey: “The campus felt like a great place to learn and grow, and the university’s awesome support for undergraduate research really impressed me. The ability to devote meaningful time each semester to research proved, essentially, to be on-the-job-training for what I am doing now – deploying creative solutions to really hard problems.”

person wearing red and black academic robes standing beside a statue
Lareau wearing his doctoral robes beside a statue of John Harvard

At TU, Lareau found faculty and staff who energetically supported his aspirations. During all four years of Lareau’s undergraduate studies, Professor of Computer Science Brett McKinney served as his research advisor. Together, they published six peer-reviewed papers, which, Lareau said, “was really the vital training and experience I needed to succeed in graduate school and beyond.”

“The summer before his freshman year, Caleb contacted me about research opportunities in bioinformatics and statistical genetics,” recalled McKinney. “When he arrived at TU, I put him to work alongside the graduate students in my lab and, before I knew it, he was cranking out research and winning scholarships. Harvard was quick to snatch him up for his Ph.D. studies and then Stanford for a post-doctoral fellowship. I am excited to see the national leader in biomedical research Caleb will become.”

Other members of the TU community who provided invaluable support to Lareau were Professor of Chemistry Gordon Purser, his academic advisor in the Department of Chemistry; Professor of Marketing Charles Wood, the director of the NOVA Fellowship, which introduced Lareau to entrepreneurship, venture capital and developing a start-up; and Steve Denton, who “emboldened” Lareau to step into a leadership role as an Orientation Leader.

In addition, Lareau salutes Nona Charleston, who, as the director of TU’s Office of Nationally Competitive Scholarships, spent “countless hours” with him discussing his prospects and making him “believe that I could hang with the best and the brightest around the country.” Through Charleston’s advice and encouragement, Lareau wound up receiving several major awards, including a Barry M. Goldwater Fellowship (2013) and a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship (2015).

After Tulsa

Lareau’s NSF fellowship gave him the wherewithal for the next stage of his academic journey: doctoral studies at Harvard Medical School. “My time at TU solidified my desire to be a professional scientist, and I knew that to succeed at the highest levels I would need to earn a Ph.D.,” said Lareau. By studying at Harvard, Lareau had access not only to one of the country’s finest academic communities, but also “the density of top-notch research hospitals in the Boston area really opened my mind to what was possible at the intersection of clinical and medical science.”

Upon completion of his doctoral studies, Lareau packed his kit and moved to the other side of the country to take up a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford, where he now devotes his time to studying cancer immunotherapy. “The basic idea here,” Lareau explained, “is that we can develop drugs to train our own immune systems to fight cancer. What’s particularly exciting is that patients who receive immunotherapy typically do much better than those who undergo standard chemotherapies.”

The specific focus of Lareau’s investigations is to understand and manipulate the ways our immune cells sense and kill cancer. In doing so, Lareau hopes to help expedite the application of immunotherapies to cancer types with the largest unmet patient need. As an example, Lareau’s research utilizes cutting-edge technologies, such as single-cell sequencing, that can reveal new opportunities at the molecular level, as he recently argued in a peer-reviewed article.

His golden horizon

two people photographed from behind while seated on a boulder gazing out at a mountainous landscape
Lareau with his partner on a cool summer night overlooking the Yosemite Valley

Life in Northern California clearly suits Lareau beyond the benefits of its vibrant research community. In his free time, Lareau immerses himself in the region’s countryside, taking great joy in hiking through the wilderness and exploring its national parks. Indeed, once his postdoc at Stanford wraps up, Lareau hopes to become a professor in the San Francisco Bay Area (although he is open to relocating another major medical hub), continuing to balance a great quality of life with exploring new oncology-treatment technologies and methods.

On the more immediate horizon, Lareau aims this spring to launch Cartography Biosciences, of which he is a scientific co-founder. The major therapeutic challenge Cartography tries to solve is to develop immunotherapies that will allow for more patients with different cancers to receive the outstanding clinical benefits currently restricted to a small set of cancers.

Lareau and his colleagues expect to specialize in chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy (hence the name CARTography). According to Lareau, the Food and Drug Administration has approved CAR T therapies only for certain types of leukemias and lymphomas, but patients who receive these treatments tend to have “unbelievably good” outcomes compared to chemotherapy.

“If our venture is successful,” said Lareau, “we hope that a whole new class of patients with many different cancers can be treated with these really powerful therapies.” And if his mightily impressive track record is any guide to the future, we should all expect to be reading about Lareau and the fulfillment of his lofty ambitions for many years to come.

TU’s Office of Nationally Competitive Scholarships was instrumental in helping Caleb Lareau gain funding to support his academic goals. Make an appointment to discuss your interests and aspirations today.