Houston Methodist Lures Rising Star in Cancer Immunotherapy

Oct. 29, 2021 - Todd Ackerman

Houston Methodist has lured a "rising star" in cancer immunotherapy, an early step in its effort to build its programs in the revolutionary new approach to the disease.

Dr. Yong Lu, a Wake Forest School of Medicine microbiologist and immunologist, will join Houston Methodist's ranks, thanks to a $4 million recruitment grant from Texas' state agency that funds promising cancer research. The grant was awarded in August.

"Dr. Lu is a very promising young investigator who will help make immunotherapy a bigger part of the Houston Methodist arsenal," says Dr. Qing Yi, associate director of basic research at Houston Methodist Cancer Center. "He'll be a valuable team member, working with clinicians and helping us enhance our capacity."

Dr. Jenny C. Chang, director of the Cancer Center, adds that "Dr. Lu has been highly successful in his career translating his discoveries into clinical trials."

Making adoptive cell therapies work against solid tumors

Dr. Lu's research concerns why adoptive cell therapies, the type of immunotherapy in which T cells are given to a patient to help the body fight cancer, aren't effective against solid tumors like they are against leukemias and lymphomas.

The solid tumors Dr. Lu has worked with the most have been in the pancreas and breast. He says that could change at Houston Methodist.

Dr. Yi, himself a grantee of the Texas cancer agency, previously recruited Dr. Lu to MD Anderson Cancer Center and Cleveland Clinic when he was at those institutions. Dr. Lu received his bachelor's degree and PhD from China Pharmaceutic University in Nanjing.

The grant was awarded by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), the state's taxpayer-funded $3 billion assault on the deadly disease. It gives out roughly $300 million a year in grants selected by a blue-ribbon panel of scientists.

The agency's recruitment grants are awarded to three categories of researchers: promising first-time professors; rising stars; and prominent senior investigators. The last classification was used to bring Dr. Yi and the husband-wife genetics team of Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins to Houston Methodist. It also brought immunologist Jim Allison to MD Anderson Cancer Center, where he went on to win the Nobel Prize for the research that led to immunotherapy becoming a new paradigm of cancer treatment.

Recruitment grant for successful younger faculty

Rising star grants, the category used to recruit Dr. Lu, are for faculty who have already launched "successful careers and quickly demonstrated their capacity to make important contributions with significant impact," according to CPRIT. "They will have shown a marked capacity for self-direction and motivation of team members and demonstrated great promise for continued contributions to translational research."

Dr. Lu says the grant will enable him to bring eight members of his lab to Houston Methodist.

"Dr. Lu's current research in preclinical models — well supported by multiple grants from the National Cancer Institute — has identified promising strategies to overcome resistance to adoptive cell therapies," says Wayne Roberts, CPRIT's Chief Executive Officer. "The CPRIT Rising Star award and his recruitment to the Houston Methodist Research Institute, where he will have access to a state-of-the-art cellular therapy facility, will give him the necessary resources and colleagues to translate his preclinical concepts to patients."

Already funded by federal and foundation grants

Dr. Lu's research is currently funded by three National Institutes of Health R01 research project grants, the agency's oldest grant mechanism. The funding includes an R37 Merit award, which provides longer-term National Cancer Institute grant support to early-stage investigators.

In addition, an American Cancer Society grant is funding research Dr. Lu is currently conducting with specialized T cells he discovered to determine if their administration can eradicate advanced tumors and prevent the recurrence of resistant tumors. That work is in animal models.

Dr. Lu says he was drawn to immunotherapy because it's the cancer treatment with the most promise for curing the disease after it's spread to other organs. He says he's looking forward to translating his work to clinical trials at Houston Methodist.

Dr. Lu anticipates he and his team will start at Houston Methodist in late November.