In 2019, the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) launched its ambitious Lloyd J. Old STAR Program, named in honor of the “Father of Modern Tumor Immunology,” who served as CRI’s founding scientific and medical director from 1971 to 2011.
Old’s bold vision of a future immune to cancer helped us build the foundation for immunotherapy’s current successes that have transformed how we treat cancer. Immunotherapy currently only works for some patients, however, and in order to bring cures to all patients, we must venture beyond what’s known and push the boundaries of what’s possible with immunotherapy. This requires taking risks, and that’s exactly what these STARs—Scientists Taking Risks—are doing.
With CRI support—each STAR will receive $1.25 million over the next five years—these promising STARs are exploring high-risk, high-reward ideas with the potential to produce transformative leaps forward that will enable the field’s next great advances.
We spoke with our inaugural CRI Lloyd J. Old STARs to learn more about their work and what they hope to accomplish during the next five years.
Meet Alexander Marson, M.D., Ph.D.
University of California, San Francisco
Using CRISPR to edit human immune cells
Dr. Alexander Marson aims to leverage flexible and powerful genome-editing technology to design immune cells that can recognize cancer cells faster and more affordably than has previously been possible with other technologies. Using CRISPR, he seeks to “paste” genetic coding for T cell receptors and chimeric antigen receptors into cells in order to engineer T cells capable of targeting cancer precisely and overcoming cancer’s ability to evade the immune system. His lab will soon begin “racing” cells with different genetic modifications against each other and see which ones perform the best.
Meet Amanda Lund, Ph.D.
NYU Langone Health
Manipulating the lymphatic system
Once considered passive conduits, the lymphatic system actively orchestrates immune activity against threats, including cancer, as Dr. Amanda Lund and her lab have shown. She is exploring the natural molecular signals that regulate lymphatic vessel function, with the goal of developing strategies to activate and regulate their function to enhance the immune response to cancer.
Meet Yvonne Chen, Ph.D.
University of California, Los Angeles
Engineering smarter T cells
As a chemical engineer, Dr. Yvonne Chen hopes to build stronger and smarter T cells with multiple chimeric antigen receptors capable of identifying more than one cancer target. By creating bispecific CAR T therapies, our immune system can get better at targeting cancer cells—even when cancer tries to cloak itself by removing its tell-tale molecular targets—and is less likely to become “exhausted” in the process. Dr. Chen’s work may also make adoptive cell therapy more effective at treating solid tumors.
Meet Gregory Sonnenberg, Ph.D.
Weill Cornell Medicine
Untangling the relationship to the microbiome
As an expert in the microbiome, Dr. Gregory Sonnenberg is using the CRI Lloyd J. Old STAR grant to apply his knowledge of the microbiome’s effect on the immune system to treating cancer. The composition of a person’s microbiome—the collection of bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms that live normally within and on us—may explain why immunotherapy works in some cancer patients but not others. Dr. Sonnenberg seeks to deepen our understanding of the relationship between the immune system and the microbiome to improve patient responses to immunotherapy. One of his immediate goals is to decipher the role of innate lymphoid cells, a type of immune cell that responds to the microbes that colonize our gut, in the context of cancer.
Meet Andrea Schietinger, Ph.D.
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
Overcoming T cell dysfunction
Why does checkpoint immunotherapy work in some cases but not in others? This question underscores Dr. Andrea Schietinger’s research into T cells and T cell dysfunction. Using a new model, she can zoom into tumors and follow cells in real time throughout cancer development. She can also monitor tumors and immune responses to therapy to better understand what is happening within the battle theater, where the immune system and cancer fight. This study will build a powerful dataset to inform decisions regarding what is needed in order to make immunotherapy more personalized and more effective for each patient.
Learn more about the Lloyd J. Old STAR Program