Inaugural Cancer Research Institute STAR Awards Scientists Studying Cancer Immunology


The Cancer Research Institute announced 5 US scientists accepted into their inaugural CRI Lloyd J. Old STAR Program for taking on potentially transformative research in cancer immunology. The scientists were announced at the CRI’s recent “Immuno-Oncology: A Future Look” event at the New York Academy of Sciences, which also recognized and celebrated the seventh annual Cancer Immunotherapy Month.

The program recognizes immunologists working on “high-risk, high-reward” research in tumor immunology and provides a $1.25 million grant payable over 5 years to each of the recipients.  

The grant money is not tied to a specific research project but is intended to afford scientists flexibility in exploring disruptive and unusual research paths. The money will fund research that could potentially transform and revolutionize immunology, which would improve outcomes for cancer immunotherapy patients. The “high-risk, high-reward" research is primarily directed at T cells, lymphatic vessels, and the microbiome.  

“The highly competitive CRI Star Program supports extremely gifted immunologists whose imaginations and capabilities outpace the incremental thinking that is dominating research and drug development in immuno-oncology today,” Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, PhD, CRI’s CEO and director of scientific affairs, said in a statement. “While step changes are necessary to extend the benefits of existing immunotherapies to broader patient populations, it’s the high-risk, high-reward ideas that have the most potential to help the field truly break through to the next great advances.”

The award is named after CRI's founding medical and scientific director Lloyd J. Old, MD, who served between 1971 and 2011. Dubbed, “The Father of Modern Tumor Immunology,” Old was known to mentor handpicked immunologists from all over the world. The CRI Lloyd J. Old Star Award hopes to carry on that tradition.  

Grant recipient Yvonne Y. Chen, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is researching how to improve CAR T cells’ construction. Chen hopes improved T cells will prevent cancer antigen escape and overcome immunosuppression in the tumor microenvironment. She also hopes the improved T cells will be able to target cancer cells through internal markers.  

Chen is also a member of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and a member researcher in the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. She has received many prestigious awards including the NSF Career Award and the NIH Director’s Early Independence Award.

Alexander Marson, MD, PhD, also will be using the $1.25 million grant to research how to improve T cells. Marson, who is an associate progressor of microbiology and immunology, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), uses genome editing tools to find genetic programs that can be put into T cells to help them better recognize and kill cancer cells.

Marson is also scientific director of biomedicine, Innovative Genomics Institute, and the principal investigator in the Marson Laboratory at UCSF. His research has typically focused on regulatory T cells and embryonic stem cells.

Grant recipient Andrea Schietinger, PhD, of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, will also be doing research on T cells. Schietinger hopes to better understand T-cell dysfunction in solid tumors in order to find strategies to overcome them. She is doing this by employing high-throughput technologies that can help us better understand the epigenetic and molecular factors that cause the dysfunction.

Schietinger is an assistant member of the Immunology Program at Sloan Kettering Institute and also runs the Andrea Schietinger Lab, where her and other researchers study immune response to cancer and the molecular mechanisms of tumor-induced T-cell dysfunction.

Oregon Health & Science University’s (OHSU) Amanda W. Lund, PhD, hopes to gain a better understanding of the lymphatic vessels and their influence on immune responses against tumors with the grant money. Using this knowledge, she hopes to develop strategies that can leverage this connection to improve the effectiveness of immunotherapy.

Lund is an assistant professor of cell, developmental, and cancer biology at the School of Medicine at OSHU and runs the Lund Lab, which is focused on the role of the lymphatic vasculature in the induction and regulation of immune responses.

Gregory F. Sonnenberg, PhD, of Weill Cornell Medicine, will be researching the microbiome. Specifically, Sonnenberg hopes to precisely define bacteria, immune system, and their relationship in cancer growth. With this definition, Sonnenberg wants to gain a better insight into tumor growth, and subsequently, what immunotherapies might prove effective in enhancing immune responses against the tumor.

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