Dr. Lei is on the steering committee of the NCI Cancer Moonshot Immuno-Oncology Translational Network. He is a recipient of the NIH Rising Stars award. His group pioneers at the identification of oncogenic suppressors of the innate immune system. Dr. Lei's basic and translational immunoprevention program focuses on the regulation of Pattern Recognition Receptors-mediated type-I interferon response, with an eye towards the immune engineering approaches to restore innate immune sensing of cancers. His laboratory utilizes a broad spectrum of technologies including biochemistry, molecular biology, flow cytometry, CyTOF, next-generation sequencing, single-cell sequencing, transgenic modeling, CRISPR-Cas9 lentiviruses, nanotechnology to vet the mechanisms that drive immune landscape shifts as pre-malignant lesions transform and to develop rationally designed immunoprevention strategies. His work is highly cited and published in well-respected journals such as the Journal of Clinical Investigation, Immunity, Clinical Cancer Research, among others.
Pattern Recognition Receptors (PPRs) constitute the first line of defense against “non-self” antigens, which are encountered during microbial infections and cancer development. With the characterization of new PRR families, such as Toll-like receptors (TLRs), NOD-like receptors (NLRs), RIG-I-like receptors (RLRs) and cGAS-STING-mediated cytoplasmic DNA-sensing molecules, novel regulatory mechanisms of PRR signaling are rapidly emerging as main cancer immune escape mechanisms. We pioneered in the identification of novel PRR regulators. Our laboratory has developed a unique collection of toolkits in the following areas.
**Mechanisms Regulating Cancer Immune Escape** Emerging evidence suggests that PRR not only detect molecular structures associated with pathogens but those linked to cellular and tissue damage. Due to increased genome instability in cancer cells and chemoradiation therapy, PRR-mediated sensing of cytoplasmic DNA, a classic danger signal for cellular damage, triggers the production of chemokines that recruit immune cells to the tumor bed. But this process is frequently suppressed by squamous cell carcinomas, leading to immune escape. We are among the first to show that oncogenic signaling in squamous cell carcinomas suppresses PRRs as a key mechanism driving T-cell exclusion.
**Immunogenomics Approaches to Identify Cold Cancer** With the emerging combinatorial strategies for cold cancer, precise identification of this group of tumors is essential for the selection of optimal treatment protocols. In collaboration with a computational geneticist, we have developed a robust and novel immune-cell deconvolution machine learning tool to map the landscape of tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes. **Immune Engineering Strategies to Sensitize Cold Cancer to Immune Checkpoint Blockade** Cold cancers are featured by insufficient elicitation of tumor-specific T-cell immunity. In order to expand the tumor-specific CD8+ T-cell repertoire, our group utilizes advanced nanotechnologies to deliver and optimize the intra-lesional immune microenvironment. For example, we have shown that our nano-vaccines can sensitize cold tumors to immunotherapy, and a combination of nano-vaccines with checkpoint blockade leads to significantly expanded tumor-specific effector T cells, reduced T-cell exhaustion and better tumor control.
Research Opportunities for Rotating Students
We have active projects to study tumor cell-immune cell interaction for rotation students, and welcome any inquiry regarding the project details.