Lung cancer research

Engineering next-generation immunotherapies​ for lung cancer patients

Dr Zhian Chen

Dr Zhian Chen’s grant is generously funded by The Denton Family Trust.

He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Frazer Institute, The University of Queensland. 

Dr Zhian Chen is a brilliant young scientist who is led by a strong desire to contribute to resolving challenges in the real world. Having witnessed family members go through cancer, Zhian is passionate about making important discoveries related to the immune system and its functionality, and hopes that his research can eventually benefit cancer patients directly.

In the face of setbacks, Zhian has remained determined to continue with his groundbreaking work. Like many, his research was negatively impacted by the onset of the global pandemic. Travel restrictions caused him to be locked out of Australia, thus disrupting time-sensitive experiments that were already underway. The complications surrounding COVID-19 also led to limited conference attendance and reduced publications, which further restricted his career development. 

Despite these obstacles, Zhian has published in some of the top Immunology scientific journals, and is frequently asked to peer review articles, In 2023, his emerging leadership was also recognised by highly competitive fellowships, the NHMRC Investigator Grant and the ARC Discovery Early Career Award. He was also the recipient of the 2023 Frazer Institute Rising Star Award. His current research on exploring next-generation immunotherapies for lung cancer is a promising project that could be game-changing for those affected by the disease. 

Boosting the immune system to help overcome lung cancer

More than 8,600 Australians die each year from lung cancer, primarily lung adenocarcinoma (LUAD). In cancer, immune cells can become exhausted, losing their ability to eliminate tumours. Immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICI) can revive the T-cell function needed to suppress cancer progression and extend the survival of cancer patients. However, ICI is only effective in about 20% of LUAD patients.  

To improve effectiveness, combining ICI with cytokine therapies such as IL-21 represents a promising approach. This project aims to enhance IL-21 by testing a new artificially lab-made antibody that significantly enhances IL-21's antitumor effect, potentially overcoming its existing limitations and unlocking ICI for use in treating LUAD.     

Dr Zhian Chen’s Research

Alongside his team, Zhian’s goal is to develop novel therapeutics that combine the new antibody artificially made in a lab with immune checkpoint inhibition (ICI), thus improving the function of IL-21 to enhance T cell immunity. 

In combining ICI and this new antibody, the immune system will be ‘boosted’.  This occurs by targeting the T-cells so that they are less exhausted and better able to eradicate cancer cells, therefore suppressing cancer progression.  

The impact of funding for lung cancer research

As an early-career researcher himself, Zhian understands the daily challenges and pressures that many others like him are facing. “​I think the greatest hurdle for early-career researchers is the unpredictive nature of this career, as researchers need to constantly apply for external fundings to support their salaries and project costs. Especially for the researchers seeking to establish their own research niche, securing the starting fundings has always been challenging,” says Zhian. Maintaining his original passion for research and focusing on the next crucial experiment helps to sustain his resilience and enthusiasm during challenging periods. But funding is vital. 

This Cure Cancer grant will provide Zhian with much-needed support for his research, particularly in the context of pre-clinical models for lung cancer. The outcomes from the funded research will not only enhance Zhian’s research track record, but also foster connections with clinical and industrial partners, critical for the growth and development of any research program.  

“This grant offers more opportunities to engage with consumers and advocates, an essential aspect of aligning my research with patient needs,” says Zhian. “The successful completion of this research will be a cornerstone in establishing a globally competitive immunology research program in the next five years.”

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