Immunotherapy Researcher Awarded $6.8 Million Grant

Zihai Li, M.D., Ph.D., is Principal Investigator for the NIH-funded grant supporting multi-institution research on endoplasmic reticulum chaperones in cancer.

Zihai Li, MD, PhD

Charleston, S.C. (September 21, 2015) – A researcher at the Medical University of South Carolina’s (MUSC) Hollings Cancer Center received a $6.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that will bring some of the best minds in cancer research together from across three institutions to accelerate breakthroughs in cancer research and drug discoveries.

Zihai Li, M.D., Ph.D., cancer immunology program leader and chair of the Department of Microbiology & Immunology at MUSC, has been awarded a five-year NIH-funded P01 grant totaling $6,768,558. Li will serve as overall principal investigator for the grant and leader of the two MUSC-based components. The other two projects will be led by chemical biologist and medicinal chemist Gabriela Chiosis, Ph.D., at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and structural biologist Daniel Gewirth, Ph.D., at Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute in Buffalo, New York.

“We are excited about the potential of this work to provide major breakthroughs in novel cancer therapies,” said Anthony J. Alberg, Ph.D., interim director for the Hollings Cancer Center. “Dr. Li’s leadership skills as a scientist and as a research team leader have led to him earning such an impactful and prestigious grant, and we are confident his work will lead to more breakthroughs in understanding and combating cancer."

The grant focuses on the heat shock protein (HSP) grp94, a molecule that is highly expressed in cancer cells and whose “drug-like” inhibitors have been identified by the researchers on this project. The collaborative team is working to learn more about grp94, uncover its cancer-specific roles and refine its targeted inhibitors for eventual clinical development of new cancer therapies. This multi-project initiative brings together cancer researchers from multiple disciplines across the three institutions.

Li’s group has played a leading role in demonstrating that grp94 is a master regulator for toll-like receptors (TLRs), integrins, low-density lipoprotein receptor-related protein 5 (LRP5) and glycoprotein a repetitions predominant (GARP). It is believed that these molecules drive cancer development. Targeting grp94 will allow the researchers to shut down these molecules and thus be effective against cancer.

Li, who holds the Sally Abney Rose Endowed Chair in Stem Cell Biology & Therapy, SmartState® Center of Economic Excellence at MUSC, was recruited to MUSC as the Hollings Cancer Center's cancer immunology program leader in 2010.

His long-term primary research involves the study of how cancer escapes recognition by the immune system. His research team has made seminal contributions to understanding the immunological properties of HSPs in cancer immunotherapy and immune tolerance, providing critical genetic evidence linking the HSPs to adaptive immunity, and pioneering the use of HSP-complexes for immunotherapy in human leukemias. Li has been the leader of four investigator-initiated Investigational New Drug applications in heat shock proteins vaccination platforms to treat cancer.

Alberg added, “Throughout his career, Dr. Li has demonstrated boundless energy, extraordinary work ethic, and significant success in his pursuit of advancing scientific breakthroughs for cancer patients. We are fortunate to have him on the Hollings Cancer Center team. This grant demonstrates how important the South Carolina SmartState® program is in allowing us to recruit the brightest and best to our state.”

Li received his medical degree from Henan Medical University and Peking Union Medical College, and his doctorate in immunology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He completed his residency training in internal medicine at Montefiore Medical Center of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and completed his clinical fellowship in medical oncology at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington, Seattle.

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