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Catalyzing immunotherapy research and advancing critical cancer prevention tools.

Research Education IF Grant Application

Our Research

We’re partnering with the best scientific minds to pursue a unique vision to cure cancer in the most comprehensive and agile way possible.

Our supported research is on HPV-related cancers, particularly those of head and neck, with current efforts focused three broad immunotherapy categories: adoptive cell therapies, personalized vaccines, and novel drugs.

Three projects have already been advanced into human trials, and all projects underneath this research partnership are designed to bring promising therapies to the clinic by 2019.

Microscope buddies
Founder Ralph Whitworth and co-lead physician/researcher Dr. Ezra Cohen in our state-of-the-art cell processing center at UCSD.

Joining Forces: UCSD & LIAI

IF has partnered with the University of California – San Diego (UCSD) and the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology (LIAI) to support focused immunotherapy research for HPV-related cancers. Already, the research shows promise to extend to other malignancies. All projects are tightly interconnected to leverage information sharing between them, allowing efficient movement into the clinic.

Scientific Leadership

Our research projects are co-led by an internationally recognized oncologist and a groundbreaking discovery scientist, providing the best and most comprehensive perspective for translating science from bench to clinic:

Ezra Cohen, MD

Ezra Cohen, MD

Co- Director, Precision Immunotherapy Center
Professor, Division of Hematology/Oncology,
Department of Medicine
Associate Director for Translational Science
Co-leader, Solid Tumor Therapeutics Program
UCSD, Moores Cancer Center

Dr. Cohen, an internationally renowned translational researcher, has made major contributions to targeted therapy and has been acknowledged for his contribution by the National Cancer Institute. A physician-scientist, Dr. Cohen led an independently funded laboratory interested in mechanisms of action of novel therapeutics. His recent National Institutes of Health-funded work in the study of epidermal growth factor receptor inhibitors in head and neck cancer has contributed to the understanding of the biology of this critical signaling network, integration of these agents into standard of care, and definition of mechanisms to overcome resistance. He recently served as chair of the NCI Head and Neck Cancer Steering Committee that oversees NCI-funded clinical research (including all NCI Cooperative Group trials) in this disease. Dr. Cohen is Associate Director, Translational Science and team leader in Head and Neck Oncology as well as the Solid Tumor Therapeutics research program at Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health.

Steven Schoenberger, PhD

Stephen Schoenberger, PhD

Co- Director, Precision Immunotherapy Center at UCSD, Moores Cancer Center 
Center Head; Professor, Division of Developmental Immunology at La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology

Dr. Schoenberger is a Professor in the Laboratory of Cellular Immunology and Chair of LIAI’s Center for the Immunobiology of Cancer, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the UCSD Moores Cancer Center. He received his Ph.D. in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics from UCLA in 1993 and completed postdoctoral training in Immunohematology and Tumor Immunology at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands. Dr. Schoenberger was appointed to LIAI’s faculty in 1998 as an Assistant Professor, became an Associate Professor in 2002, gained Tenure in 2005, and became a Professor in 2007. He is a recipient of Scholar Awards from both the American Cancer Society and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and is on the editorial advisory board of the Journal of Experimental Medicine. Dr. Schoenberger is a leader in the immunobiology of CD4+ and CD8+ T cell responses with particular expertise on the generation and maintenance of immune memory by these subsets and in the key role of antigen-presenting cells (APC) in mediating antigen-specific tolerance versus immunity.

Near-Term Projects

We’re focusing our efforts in the following areas to maximize impact.

Adoptive Cell Therapies

Also called cellular adoptive immunotherapy, adoptive cell therapies are treatments used to help the immune system fight diseases, such as cancer and infections with certain viruses. T cells are collected from a patient and grown in the laboratory, increasing the number of T cells that are able to kill cancer cells or fight infections. These T cells are given back to the patient to help the immune system fight disease. The next evolution of this therapy is being studied at UCSD, referred to as “TIL2.0.” This involves the added step of defining which antigens the person’s T cells are responding to, and growing those T cells preferentially in the lab. Those specific T cells are then infused back to the patient.

Personalized Vaccines

Cancer treatment vaccines are used to treat cancers that have already developed. They are intended to delay or stop cancer cell growth; to cause tumor shrinkage; to prevent cancer from coming back; or to eliminate cancer cells that have not been killed by other forms of treatment.

These therapies are designed to work by activating cytotoxic T cells and directing them to recognize and act against specific types of cancer, or by inducing the production of antibodies that bind to molecules on the surface of cancer cells. To do so, treatment vaccines introduce one or more antigens into the body, usually by injection, where they cause an immune response that results in T cell activation or antibody production. Antibodies recognize and bind to antigens on the surface of cancer cells, whereas T cells can also detect cancer antigens inside cancer cells.


Novel Drugs

Novel drugs are innovative products that serve previously unmet medical needs or otherwise significantly help to advance patient care and public health. New and existing categories of these novel agents have been developed to target the immune system, including checkpoint inhibitors/blockade, or drugs that block certain proteins made by some types of immune system cells and cancer cells, to release the “brakes” on the immune system so T cells are better able to kill cancer cells, which have been among the most successful for patients and are currently available on the market; drugs that inhibit immune suppressive myeloid cells in the tumor microenvironment to promote anti-tumor activity, as UCSD has studied in inhibiting PI3Kγ, and cytokines, a broad class of drugs that directly stimulate the immune system.

IF Ripple Effect: Cancer Vaccine Spotlight

Cancer is a disease of altered DNA, such as mutations, that provide cells with a growth advantage over normal tissue. These alterations allow cancer to proliferate, metastasize, and become immortal. However, no two cancers have the identical mutational profile. Nonetheless, some of these mutations can be recognized by the immune system as neoantigens.

Researchers at LJI and UCSD discovered, with funding from IF, that neoantigens are not only recognized by a person's immune system but, if properly stimulated, a patient's T cells can destroy cancer. Moreover, IF funding enabled a methodology of identifying targetable mutations in any individual, irrespective of cancer type. This platform provides the foundation of precise and individualized immunotherapy based on the mutations in a patient's cancer and what their immune system is responding to.

Ripple Effect: Through IF’s investment in basic science, a clinical trial of a personalized neoantigen cancer vaccine, sponsored by the Strauss family, was able to begin in 2018 at UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center. In this study, a patient's tumor is biopsied and the DNA from cancer cells is sequenced. This allows, through a bioinformatic algorithm, the selection of candidate mutations that have a high likelihood of being recognized by the immune system. Research clinicians then draw blood from the patient, extract T cells, and test those T cells against peptides that represent the candidate mutation. The peptide sequences that are recognized by T cells are then converted into a vaccine that is given to the patient. Therefore, the research teams are creating a vaccine that is designed for and will treat only that person based on what their cancer and immune system indicate. By choosing the most promising projects and partnerships, IF’s basic science investment continue to ripple out, changing outcomes for patients.

Microscope buddies


These collective programs supported by IF have already led to major scientific accomplishments. They have also been recognized by national cancer associations, such as the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) who awarded its Clinic and Laboratory Integration Program (CLIP) Grant to support the collaborative work between UCSD and LIAI.

Three research projects underneath this funded collaboration have already progressed into human trials. A state-of-the-art cell processing lab, the Immunotherapy Foundation Advanced Cellular Therapy Lab, capable of relaying new levels of specificity in understanding an individual’s unique immune system and antigen production, is now operational and in IND-filing preparations.

Among the foundation’s other breakthrough achievements:

IF Timeline

Research in the News