Dr. Moutih Rafei commands a prominent position in the fields of immunology and immuno-oncology, boasting a distinguished career spanning over two decades. He has spearheaded groundbreaking research and emerged as a leading force in developing immune-based therapies for severe medical conditions. His trajectory is a truly inspiring narrative from a budding scientist to a Senior Scientific Advisor and CEO.
Dr. Rafei’s journey commenced with an intense desire to comprehend the intricacies of the human immune system. Armed with a PhD in Experimental Medicine from McGill University, he embarked on a quest to demystify T-cell development, stem cell biology, cancer immunotherapy, and autoimmune diseases. His early research plunged into the depths of thymopoiesis, a pivotal process in T-cell development.
What sets Dr. Rafei apart is his steadfast dedication to translational research. Beyond the laboratory, Dr. Rafei’s influence extends as CEO of AXIOM Services Inc., where he has fostered a culture of collaboration and innovation. This has resulted in the development of cell-based treatments and cancer vaccination strategies poised to benefit patients worldwide.
Dr. Rafei’s profound impact on science has not gone unnoticed. His unwavering dedication to advancing medicine has garnered over 20 awards and accolades throughout his career. His research has led to over 50 influential peer-reviewed publications, along with 5 reviews, 2 book chapters, 1 monograph, and 6 patented innovations.
In his capacity as an Associate Professor at Université de Montréal, Dr. Rafei is nurturing the next generation of scientific minds. His mentorship and commitment to education ensure that his legacy will continue to shape the future of medicine for years to come.
Below are some highlights of his inspiring journey:
From Passion to Practice
Dr. Rafei has always harbored a profound fascination for biomedical sciences and their potential to benefit society. One particularly poignant memory that resonates with him is witnessing a cancer patient, successfully treated through immunotherapy, being brought on stage during an international meeting. These emotional moments served as a driving force, fueling his determination to combat life-threatening illnesses.
Guided by this devoted passion, he assumed a multifaceted role. On one front, he enjoys the liberty to explore various hypotheses in his academic laboratory and play a role in shaping the education of the next generation of highly skilled professionals. Simultaneously, he leverages his extensive expertise in immune-oncology, cell therapy, and therapeutics as a senior consultant, contributing to advancements in the industrial sector.
Dr. Rafei’s Dual Role in Research and Education
Dr. Rafei oversees an extensive research program that addresses various facets of immunology and oncology. This program encompasses several specialized areas and is entirely dedicated to translational research. Notably, he has observed that a significant number of his graduating students are venturing into careers within the industry, underscoring the influence he wields on their professional trajectories.
Regarding his teaching endeavors, Dr. Rafei consistently delivers lectures on various subjects, some directly tied to his own work, while others cover unrelated yet crucial topics. In contrast to undergraduate courses, which tend to be more broadly focused, his graduate-level classes predominantly revolve around his field of research. In these settings, he frequently supplements theoretical concepts with concrete examples drawn from his ongoing research initiatives.
Dr. Rafei explains, “Universities represent a world of dreams and the freedom to test our ideas. They are, therefore, at the edge of continuous innovation and discovery. Students from all over the globe come to Université de Montréal in order to learn new things and test new ideas.”
In his role as an educator, while shaping the minds of upcoming experts, Dr. Rafei also finds himself in a continual learning process. He states, “In fact, my research is always pushing our scope of knowledge on various pathologies and ways to bypass them therapeutically.”
Journey into Translational Research and Consulting
Given Dr. Rafei’s expertise and strong interest in translational research, he decided to establish his own consulting company to contribute to the advancement of industrial projects. This idea emerged after he encountered numerous experts in international meetings seeking guidance and support for their endeavors. In fact, he initiated his consulting work during his PhD training, and its scope expanded steadily until he started securing more substantial consulting contracts. Subsequently, he made the decision to establish AXIOM Services as a supplementary venture. This opportunity proved to be highly beneficial as it afforded him a distinct perspective on research and development, along with invaluable exposure to clinical concepts that are not readily accessible in an academic setting.
Path to Immunology Breakthroughs
Following his post-doctoral training, Dr. Rafei embarked on a journey at Université de Montréal, driven by the primary objective of unraveling the molecular intricacies underlying intrathymic T-cell development. He aimed to pave the way for the customization of new immune-enhancing therapies. Notably, he and his team harnessed cytokines to augment de novo T-lymphopoiesis in aged mice and in cases following bone marrow transplantation.
In addition to this, he played an active role in two significant areas:
- i) the engineering and testing of innovative forms of antigen-presenting cells for cancer vaccination and
- ii) the discovery of novel anti-cancer small molecules.
Over the past decade, Dr. Rafei has mentored over 30 highly proficient individuals and secured upwards of 6 million dollars in funding as an independent principal investigator. He swiftly ascended to the position of a leading author in various prominent journals and filed numerous patent applications for his pioneering technologies, firmly establishing his authority in the realm of immunotherapy. The mounting invitations to participate in meetings and review panels at both national and international levels serve as a testament to his thriving influence in the field.
Dr. Rafei also stands as one of the seven co-founders instrumental in the establishment of the annual “Cytokines in Inflammation, Ageing, Cancer and Obesity” symposium. These collective contributions have enabled him to cultivate a robust scientific network, a foundation he can now rely upon to propel the expansion of his research endeavors. In essence, the fruits of his labor have materialized in tangible academic and professional accomplishments. His academic trajectory forms the nucleus of his leadership growth, furnishing him with a sturdy platform to further advance his innovative research program and accomplish pivotal translational breakthroughs in immunology-oncology.
Entrepreneurship, Expertise, and Extended Hours
As the founder and sole owner of his company, Dr. Rafei has extended his services to over half a dozen biotech companies operating in diverse domains, including artificial intelligence, as well as specialized programs like cytokine engineering and cancer-targeting cell therapies. His advisory roles with these companies have allowed him to amass a robust and varied experience, equipping him with the necessary tools to engage with regulatory agencies like Health Canada, FDA, and MHRA. Additionally, this exposure introduced him to the realms of project management and interactions with Contract Research Organizations (CROs), enabling him to effectively oversee and complete all undertaken projects.
It is generally assumed that Dr. Rafei maintains a standard workweek of 35-40 hours. However, there are instances where his workweeks extend to 70-90 hours. Consequently, he invests a significant amount of time working remotely, often late into the night and over weekends, to fulfill his commitments. Remarkably, this extended workload has never compromised his responsibilities as an academic professor. Additionally, he places great importance on effective communication, particularly with his students, recognizing it as a fundamental factor contributing to his success.
When Dr. Rafei was a PhD student, he cherished a persistent dream of developing cures for catastrophic illnesses, be it autoimmune diseases or cancer. The aspiration was to leave an indelible mark on the field. However, he soon recognized that he wasn’t situated in the “Bay” or Boston area, where investments and funding flowed abundantly. This posed a significant obstacle to the advancement of his objectives towards a business venture. It became evident that transferring his own discoveries to clinical applications would be exceedingly challenging. Consequently, he made the decision to pursue an alternative path, one that afforded him the opportunity to explore and test his hypotheses and ideas within an academic setting while simultaneously contributing to industrial projects through his consulting services.
Incorporating Research Findings and Expertise into Teaching
Incorporating research findings into his teaching, Dr. Rafei seamlessly integrates complex biomedical concepts with real-life examples from his ongoing studies. This teaching approach captivates undergraduates, sparking their interest in research opportunities. At the graduate level, courses closely align with Dr. Rafei’s research, ensuring students stay updated on the latest developments. This teaching method keeps students well-informed, encouraging them to actively engage in the immune-oncology field. Reflecting on past achievements, such as CAR-T therapies and mRNA technology, Dr. Rafei envisions a future dominated by immune-oncology 2.0. The evolving landscape, particularly in cancer vaccines, promises transformative opportunities, allowing professionals like him to contribute significantly to scientific and healthcare advancements.
Keys to Success
Dr. Rafei addresses the audience with three main factors for a successful career as an advisor or principal investigator:
“To be curious, To be motivated, To be determined at completing projects but with the least loss possible.”
The take-home message is to keep learning and be willing to contribute to different projects. However, not all projects are based on suitable hypotheses. Therefore, it is important to know when to stop in order not to drain your energy the wrong way.
Dr. Rafei has been a part of impactful projects, advising an AI company to create patient-friendly medication apps. He guided the development of a modified cytokine product for cancer patients. Emphasizing his significant achievement, Dr. Rafei shares, “One of my biggest achievements is related to the development of a novel type of cell-based anticancer vaccine.” This vaccine, utilizing unique stem cells, shows promise against established tumors and moves to Phase I trials in 2024.
With the quest in cancer immunotherapy, Dr. Rafei’s enduring goal is to pioneer life-saving therapies in cancer immunotherapy, sharing knowledge and expertise within academia and industry, aligning with his scientific mission.
Future of the Industry and Emerging Opportunities
In Dr. Rafei’s perspective, the future of the immune-oncology industry appears immensely promising, characterized by remarkable advancements. Reflecting on the past decade, he acknowledges that “the last 10 years were full of great achievements. With the release of CAR-T products, immune-checkpoint blockers, use of AI, and the development of precision medicine, the field of immune-oncology is evolving at a fascinating speed.” Adding more to the developments, he finds the emergence of the mRNA technology, an important cornerstone of many pipelines in development nowadays.
Notably, Dr. Rafei sees cancer vaccines as a potential breakthrough. Technological strides have simplified the identification of neoantigens and tumor-specific markers, paving the way for developing highly efficient cancer vaccines. These vaccines hold the potential for both therapeutic use in treating established tumors and prophylactic applications, protecting against future cancer occurrences. Dr. Rafei believes that these innovative developments, particularly in cancer vaccines, will shape the future landscape of immune-oncology, opening up numerous opportunities for professionals in the field.