prof. Karim Vermaelen (MD, PhD)

CRIG group leader
Karim Vermaelen

Associate professor, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, UGent
Principal investigator, Tumor Immunology Laboratory of the Dept. of Pulmonary Medicine
Co-founder of the ION (Immuno-Oncology Network) Ghent
Board-certified pulmonary physician and thoracic oncologist 


Research focus

Our preclinical research investigates the interactions between lung cancer and the immune system, with a special focus on dendritic cells (DCs). DCs can function as sentinels and alert T-lymphocytes (the soldiers of our immune system) about the presence of danger in our body, including developing tumors.
We have uncovered a novel way by which lung tumors corrupts the function of DCs in order to escape immune control. This involves reprogramming of the DC’s micro-RNA repertoire. Micro-RNAs are small non-protein coding RNAs that can “veto” the translation of genes into proteins wihin a cell. Intriguingly, the micro-RNA signature of these “corrupt” DCs predicts a worse outcome in lung cancer patients. We think that interfering with the surge of “bad” micro-RNAs within DCs can provide a novel way to restore proper anti-tumor immunity.
We are also exploring the therapeutic potential of immunostimulatory DCs generated in vitro from patient blood. By loading these cells with mRNA prepared from the patient’s own tumor, a cellular vaccine is thus obtained. Our lab has performed the preclinical development of the first DC vaccine against lung cancer in this country. Clinical validation is now ongoing in collaboration with the Cell and Tissue bank of the hospital.
In addition, through the thoracic oncology clinic we are offering patients a whole range of clinical studies with the latest immunotherapies in lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Finally, next to the research in tumor immunology we are also developing an exhaled breath mass-spectrometric biomarker technique to enable early detection of malignant mesothelioma in asbestos-exposed patients in a completely non-invasive way.

Research team

  • Prof. Dr. K. Vermaelen, group leader
  • dr. Elisabeth Brabants, post-doctoral fellow
  • Sabrina Lagniau, doctoral fellow
  • Nancy Decabooter, technician
  • Kelly Heyns, technician
  • Veronique Debacker, technician

Key publications

  • The transcriptome of lung tumor-infiltrating dendritic cells reveals a tumor-supporting phenotype and a micro-RNA signature with negative impact on clinical outcome. Oncoimmunology, 2016
  • Lung tumours reprogram pulmonary dendritic cell immunogenicity at the microRNA level. International Journal of Cancer, 2014
  • Non-coding RNAs and respiratory disease. Thorax, 2014
  • Indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase, a new prognostic marker in sentinel lymph nodes of melanoma patients. Eur J Cancer, 2011
  • Immune reactions in benign and malignant melanocytic lesions: lessons for immunotherapy.  Pigment Cell Melanoma Res., 2011
  • Treatment of extensive-stage small cell lung carcinoma: current status and future prospects. European Respiratory Journal, 2010
  • Activation of the NLRP3 inflammasome in dendritic cells induces IL-1beta-dependent adaptive immunity against tumors. Nature Medicine, 2009
  • State-of-the-Art Review: Pulmonary Dendritic Cells. Karim Vermaelen, Romain Pauwels, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 2005
  • Identification and characterization of human pulmonary dendritic cells. American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology, 2005
  • Specific migratory dendritic cells rapidly transport antigen from the airways to the thoracic lymph nodes. The Journal of Experimental Medicine, 2001