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UTHSC-Led Team Receives $3.16 Million from National Cancer Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy Drug Development


A UTHSC-led team has received $3.16 million from the National Cancer Institute to develop a drug that boosts the immune system response in cancer patients to destroy tumor cells. Gabor Tigyi, MD, PhD, Harriet Van Vleet Endowment Professor in the Department of Physiology, is the lead investigator. Sue Chin Lee, PhD, associate professor in the same department, is a principal investigator.

Dr. Sue Chin Lee

Cancer immunotherapy is one of the hottest areas of personalized medicine that unfortunately fails in many patients because of the ways cancerous cells are able to sidestep and inhibit the body’s anti-tumor response. Dr. Lee and Dr. Tigyi have identified a key inhibitor of cytotoxic T cell activation, the killer cells that eliminate cancerous cells. Working with Corinne Augelli-Szafran, PhD, vice president of Scientific Platforms at Southern Research in Birmingham Alabama, they have designed drug candidates that Raul Torres, PhD, professor of Immunology and Microbiology at the University of Colorado, has shown overcome the blockade of tumor-killing immune cells.

“We are very astonished that our grant application received a perfect 1 percentile score from the National Cancer Institute review panel. That reflects the excitement of our peers recognizing the significance of our proposal,” said Dr. Tigyi, who is also the associate vice chancellor for Research, Global Cooperation, and Industry Relations. “The key to our success was embedded in the complementary expertise and distinguished research track record of our team members.”

Dr. Lee provided crucial preliminary data for the grant application, identifying the lead candidate compound now being used to develop the new therapeutic. Her preliminary data gathering was made possible by a 2018 CORNET award, a competitive intramural grant program funded by the UTHSC Office of Research that promotes new lines of interdisciplinary team study. In this case, the $50,000 CORNET award bolstered an academic-industry partnership between UTHSC and Southern Research, and now, four years later, has yielded a multiple principal investigator award that is worth millions.

“The development of a relationship between UTHSC and Southern Research, exemplified by our joint CORNET awards, has been an exceptionally important step in developing the drug discovery and development pipeline at UTHSC,” said Steve Goodman, PhD, UTHSC vice chancellor for Research. “I want to congratulate Dr. Lee, Dr. Tigyi, Dr. Augelli-Szafran, and Dr. Torres on their outstanding work and the resultant multi-PI NCI grant award.”