Earlier this year, Lieping Chen, M.D., Ph.D., a former Cancer Research Institute grantee, was named a “2018 Giant of Cancer Care in Immuno-Oncology,” by OncLive, a digital platform of resources for practicing oncologists, in honor of his seminal contributions to our understanding of the PD-1/PD-L1 immune checkpoint pathway.
In 1999, Chen—then a CRI pre-clinical grantee at the Mayo Clinic until 2001 who is now at Yale University—was one of the first to discover a molecule he called B7-H1, which is now known as PD-L1. He subsequently showed that PD-L1 is expressed by several types of tumors and that its activity can cause the death of T cells, thus preventing them from eliminating cancer cells. Bringing these lines of inquiry full circle, he later showed that blocking this interaction between PD-1 and PD-L1 improved the immune system’s ability to eliminate tumors.
Chen’s work provided an important foundation for the subsequent development of immunotherapies designed to block this activity, and thereby enable more effective immune responses against cancer. As he and his colleagues humbly noted in a 2002 paper, “These findings have implications for the design of T cell-based cancer immunotherapy."
Today, there are five FDA-approved immunotherapies, for eleven major cancer types, that target the PD-1/PD-L1 pathway. Overall, these therapies have revolutionized cancer care in the clinic, and one of these is the first and only treatment—of any type—to be approved for cancer patients with any type of solid tumor, so long as it’s characterized by genomic instability (also known as MSI-hi or dMMR).
In recognition of his contributions, Dr. Chen has previously received several awards, including the 2014 William B. Coley Award for Distinguished Research in Basic or Tumor Immunology, CRI’s highest scientific honor. Watch our video about the work of Dr. Chen and others to unleash PD-1 therapy.
Other important breakthroughs made by Chen include the development of an agonist antibody against the 4-1bb co-stimulatory pathway, also known as CD137, for which he holds several patents. Multiple 4-1bb-targeting antibodies have since been developed and are now being evaluated in clinical trials for a variety of cancer types.