Leo Lei is an internationally recognized oral pathologist-immunologist who actively provides service to many institutional, foundational, and national committees, such as the steering committee of the NCI Cancer Moonshot Immuno-Oncology Translational Network, the NCI PREVENT panel, and the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center Research Committee. He is a tenured faculty member at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He received his Ph.D. from Dr. Jenny P.-Y. Ting at the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and completed his Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology Residency at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, PA.
Lei completed a T32- and K99-supported Head and Neck Oncology Fellowship with Dr. Robert L. Ferris at the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. Dr. Lei’s group pioneers the identification of oncogenic and viral inhibitors of the innate immune system. He has published in leading journals with a citation of over 15,000 times and is a recipient of the NIH Rising Stars award. He is also an entrepreneur and a co-founder of a start-up company that focuses on developing advanced nanotechnology for cancer immunotherapy and immunoprevention. Lei has served the AADOCR in various roles, such as the councilor for the Clinical and Translational Science Network, a member of the Nominating Committee, a member of the Fellowships Committee, and more recently, a mentor in the MIND the Future program.
1. How did you first learn about the AADOCR and what motivated you to join?
I joined AADOCR when I was a graduate student at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At that time, my thesis work focused on the interaction between the host immune system and RNA viruses such as the influenza virus and SARS-CoV. Although my projects were not directly related to dental research, I was encouraged by faculty members at the UNC School of Dentistry to start participating in AADOCR activities. I did a podium presentation at the 2009 AADR conference in Miami and pleasantly realized that AADOCR has such an expansive scope of scientific horizon. No matter what we do, we can always find a home at the AADOCR.
2. Can you describe your research? How do you hope your work will impact others?
Our research focuses on the innate immune sensing of cancers. T-cells have been the main focus of immuno-oncology research, which has transformed the landscape of cancer treatments. However, most oral cancer patients do not respond to T-cell targeted immune checkpoint inhibitors. A central resistance mechanism arises in the failure to properly activate the innate immune sensors, which constitute the first step of generating tumor-specific cytotoxic T-cells. Our group is among the first to uncover the main oncogenic and viral inhibitors of innate immune sensors in oral cancers. We are supported, in part, by the Biden Cancer Moonshot initiative, which helps us establish collaboration with other experts to develop new strategies in normalizing innate immune sensing of cancers. To advance our scientific agenda, we have partnered with bioinformaticians to engineer new pipelines for computational immunogenomics analysis; we have partnered with pharmaceutical scientists to produce nanoparticles that enhance innate immune activation; and we have also partnered with head and neck surgeons to expedite the bidirectional translation of our research findings.
Overall, our basic and translational immunoprevention program focuses on the regulation of Pattern Recognition Receptors signaling, with an eye towards the engineering approaches to restore innate immune sensing. Our collaborative work is highly cited and published in well-respected journals, including Immunity, Nature Nanotechnology, Journal of Clinical Investigation, Nature Immunology, Nature Communications, Clinical Cancer Research, Cell, Nature, Science, among others. I am among the highest cited oral and maxillofacial pathologists. I am a reviewer for many top journals and serve on the editorial board of the Journal of Dental Research. We have filed invention disclosures, some of which have been licensed to facilitate resource sharing.
In addition to our scientific impact, a major focus of my research program is to foster the professional growth of the cadre of next-generation cancer immunologists and oral health scientists. I have mentored, co-mentored, or served on the thesis committees for 17 graduate students, five postdoctoral fellows, three house officers, and six undergraduate students. My trainees have received institutional and national accolades for excellence in research and for promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. All of my trainees are retained in research-centric positions at both academia and immuno-oncology industries. Some of my former students have reached academic independence. I think scientists never fail. We all experienced frustrations when our hypothesis was proven incorrect, however, during this process, we helped trainees to design experiments, interpret data, engage alternative strategies, and identify collaborations to address conceptual or technical difficulties. Thus, experiments might fail, but a people-centered research program will always succeed in promoting the critical thinking and professional growth of the trainees, which is likely our biggest impact
3. Can you describe your experience being a researcher from an underrepresented group in science?
I am an immigrant and proudly became a naturalized U.S. citizen several years ago. Now I have spent more adulthood years in the U.S. than in China, where I grew up. I am fluent in two languages and sensitive to many cultures. What I am most grateful for is the inclusive U.S. scientific environment that helps me to grow as an academician. I vividly remember that I felt like entering into an U.N. session when I had my first seminars at the UNC School of Dentistry and the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. People from all over the world were drawn to the U.S. research enterprise to generate more impact. Having the ability to attract talents from all over the globe is central to maintaining our research competitiveness. The travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the past couple of years made many P.I.s realize how difficult it is to develop a strong workforce with doors closed. I had the honor to have worked with amazing mentors when I was a student and then a postdoctoral fellow. Their generosity, kindness, and genuine curiosity in science are my north star. It is time to give back, and I will do everything I can to help our trainees achieve their career aspirations.
4. You are a mentor for the 2021-22 class of the AADOCR Mentoring an Inclusive Network for a Diverse Workforce of the Future (AADOCR MIND the Future). Thank you for volunteering your time! What motived you to be a mentor for this program?
It is a privilege to be part of this transformative program. I want to thank the U01 team and the NIDCR staff for launching this initiative. I have benefited immensely from an inclusive scientific environment. Since I became a mentor, I am more aware that there are inequalities and that not all of them can be easily identified or addressed immediately. I want to engage the network to be available for trainees who would like to have a mentor outside their immediate day-to-day work for career development. Another aspect of this program is its exceptionally well-constructed educational materials for us to become more effective mentors. I look forward to engaging in more activities as the program develops in the upcoming years.
5. Based on your experience, how would you encourage AADOCR members to help increase the diversity of the research workforce?
When the word “diversity” is mentioned, we usually think of racial and ethnic groups first. It is crucially important to recognize the gaps that we must address in promoting a diverse research workforce. Meanwhile, I would also like to recommend consideration of a broader definition of diversity. One is to engage trainees from low-income families better. I have had the privilege of working with several exceptionally talented students who grew up in low-income families. Regardless of the ethnic groups they may belong to, they had fewer opportunities to access high-quality educational resources when they grew up than children from affluent families. They could not take any resources for granted and had to work much harder to earn an opportunity to elevate their influence. A successful academic career is built upon arduous work driven by curiosity. What I see in their eyes is their eagerness to make a positive impact on people around them. Their relentless pursuit of new scientific horizons has led to many new discoveries that I am very excited about. This journey also makes me realize the urgency to develop systematic strategies to better engage students from low-income families, regardless of their racial and ethnic groups.
Another diversity definition that I feel is equally important is scientific diversity. The most rewarding aspect of being an academician is to create new knowledge. While it is appealing to pursue projects on “hot” topics, it is vital to recognize that the basic bench research is the foundation of breakthroughs in diagnoses and treatments. Oftentimes, breakthroughs cannot be expedited and have to run their natural course. As a community, we should encourage the trainees not to be afraid of taking on a high-risk basic research project because it might be harder to get it funded or get it into a flagship journal. The tendency to stay only in the comfort zone at an early stage of one’s career may jeopardize the trainee’s wiliness to take more risks in developing more innovative projects in the future. Overall, I think diversity is a powerful word that imparts an egalitarian principle into our daily practice in education and scientific innovation. It takes an egalitarian approach to realize the promise we make to our cadre of next-generation oral health scientists.
6. What role do you think professional associations can play in supporting its members who are members of underrepresented minority/ethnic groups?
AADOCR is a global leader in promoting an inclusive environment. There are many wonderful awards thanks to the generous donors. The award recipients represent the faces of our diverse dental and craniofacial research workforce. In addition to networking, I think a more precise identification and engagement of student members from low-income families at pre-dental school stages may help more underrepresented students to learn about dentistry, oral health research, and a transformative experience that AADOCR can help impart into their professional growth.