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Karen Liby, PhD examines immune system and drug combinations to fight cancer.

Drug discovery expert joins IU School of Medicine, IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center as Eskenazi professor

Karen T. Liby, PhD

Karen T. Liby, PhD is the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Professor of Hematology-Oncology and professor of medicine and pharmacology and toxicology at IU School of Medicine.

Karen Liby, PhD examines immune system and drug combinations to fight cancer

INDIANAPOLIS—A researcher who focuses on how the immune system and new combinations of drugs can fight cancer has joined Indiana University School of Medicine and the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer.

Karen T. Liby, PhD has been named the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Professor of Hematology-Oncology and professor of medicine and pharmacology and toxicology at IU School of Medicine. She also is a member of the cancer center’s Experimental and Developmental Therapeutics research program.

Liby’s recruitment to IU was made possible in part by a $2 million gift from Sandra, Dori and David Eskenazi honoring their parents, Indianapolis philanthropists Sidney and Lois Eskenazi. The chair is designated for recruiting a highly accomplished researcher who focuses on discovering ways to treat, diagnose and prevent cancer, particularly lung cancer.

"The purpose of the chair is to fund a researcher to work with Dr. Larry Einhorn to find new ways to treat and hopefully eradicate cancer,” Sandra Eskenazi said. “Our mother is a lung cancer survivor thanks to Dr. Einhorn and his colleagues. My brother, sister and I created this to honor our parents and recognize Dr. Einhorn.”

“I am honored to hold the Eskenazi chair and grateful to the Eskenazi family for their many years of support for cancer research," Liby said. "The cancer center offers a highly interactive and interdisciplinary scientific environment. I know I am joining a collaborative team, which is vital to discoveries.”

In more than 20 years of research, Liby has focused on finding drug and treatment combinations that can reprogram the immune cells driving cancer growth.

“Inflammation and oxidative stress promote numerous chronic diseases, including cancer. The goal of our research is to learn how inflammation and the immune system contribute to cancer growth and develop drugs to effectively intervene in this process,” Liby said.

In researching triterpenoids (plant-based substances with the potential to prevent and treat cancer), Liby conducted the in vivo screening assays that helped Reata Pharmaceuticals Inc. advance the drug omaveloxolone. In February 2023, the FDA approved it as the only drug to treat Friedreich’s ataxia, a rare genetic progressive neurodegenerative movement disorder that typically begins in adolescence.

“The path from initial synthesis of the compound to FDA approval was long, and we had to overcome multiple challenges,” Liby said. “This rewarding experience serves as a model for my current research.”

To date, Liby holds nine patents (with two pending) related to preventing malignant and benign tumors in a variety of disorders.

Besides expanding her cancer research, she looks forward to training and advising students because “research can be fun as well as highly satisfying,” she said.

Liby received her PhD in cell and molecular biology from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and completed postdoctoral training at Dartmouth Medical School, where she also joined the faculty. She was also on faculty at Michigan State University’s Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology, where she continues as adjunct professor.

She is a member of the American Association for Cancer Research and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, on the editorial board for Scientific Reports and AACR Cancer Prevention Research, and a guest co-editor of Frontiers in Oncology: Furthering Precision Medicine and Cancer Prevention Through Novel Insights in Molecular and Chemical Carcinogenesis.

She has made presentations and served on peer review panels in the United States and internationally. Most recently, she chaired the NCI (National Cancer Institute) Discovery and Development of Natural Products for Cancer Interception and Prevention Study Section.

The results of her research studies have been published in journals such as Cancers, Cancer Research, Cancer Letters, Scientific Reports, Clinical Cancer Research, Molecular Cancer Therapeutics, npj Breast Cancer, and Theranostics; her reviews have been published in Nature Reviews Cancer and Pharmacological Reviews.

Liby succeeds David Boothman, PhD as Eskenazi Professor of Hematology-Oncology, who held that title from 2017 until his death in 2019.

About the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center

The Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center is the state’s only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center and one of only 56 in the nation. The prestigious comprehensive designation recognizes the center’s excellence in basic, clinical, and population research, its outstanding educational activities, and its effective community outreach program across the state. It is also one of only 33 members of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network. As a member, the center’s physicians have a role in determining the recognized standard of clinical care for cancer patients. The center is the central hub for cancer research and education across Indiana University.