Grant will support research on engineering tumor-specific T cells for cancer immunotherapy

Yvonne Chen, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award, the agency’s highest honor for faculty members at the start of their research and teaching careers.

The five-year, $505,000 research grant will support Chen’s research on engineering tumor-specific T cells for cancer immunotherapy.

Tumor-targeting T cells – a type of white blood cell that can be harvested from cancer patients, genetically modified to recognize tumor cells, and then re-injected into the same patients – have shown remarkable curative potential against multiple types of cancers that are in advanced stages. However, a major challenge for a broad application of this therapy is off-tumor toxicity, in which T cells attack healthy tissues that display the same biochemical markers as tumor cells on their surfaces.

Specifically, her research group will develop synthetic, cytotoxic molecules that can be delivered by T cells into target cells and conditionally trigger target-cell death if, and only if, the target cells contain proteins specific to tumor cells.

The proposed research will generate T cells that are highly specific to cancer cells and reduce toxicity to healthy cells. The NSF grant will also fund outreach efforts focusing on introducing engineering careers in general and biomolecular engineering research in particular to young, underrepresented minority students in greater Los Angeles. This effort will be pursued in collaboration with the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Monica.

Chen joined UCLA in 2013, after receiving her Ph.D. in chemical cengineering from Caltech and completing postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical School as a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows. She is also a recent recipient of the Hellman Fellowship and the ACGT 2015 Young Investigator Award in Cell and Gene Therapy for Cancer. Chen previously received the NIH Director’s Early Independence Award.