CCIL researchers Hua Wang and Erik Nelson.


Cancer Center at Illinois (CCIL) researchers Hua Wang and Erik Nelson are the recipients of a two-year National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to explore new biomedical technologies for improved cancer immunotherapy.

Their project, “Metabolic Tagging of Tumor Exosomes for Developing Enhanced Exosome Vaccines,” will study tumor exosomes – small extracellular vesicles derived from cancer cells that contain tumor-associated antigens. Wang and Nelson will investigate these cells and their response to immunotherapy.

While tumor-exosome studies have explored their diagnostic applications, an opportunity remains to determine their therapeutic potential. “Tumor exosomes are a safe source of tumor-associated antigens and have been tested as a therapeutic cancer vaccine in clinical trials. The challenge lies in generating potent and persistent cytotoxic T lymphocyte response and antitumor efficacy,” said Wang, lead investigator on the study and a materials science and engineering professor.

The project aligns with the existing mission of the Wang lab to develop clinical immunotherapies that benefit cancer patients. “This project will allow us to explore the next-generation tumor exosome vaccines that have tremendous promise for clinical application,” said Wang.

Nelson, professor of molecular and integrative physiology and co-PI, hopes the project provides new insights into the body’s immune system. “In theory, the immune system can kill cancer cells. The problem is in figuring out safe ways to unlock this potential. We look forward to testing this new approach in pre-clinical models of breast cancer,” said Nelson.

The $400k NIH R21 award is the fruit of a multi-year process for Wang and Nelson and will build upon a previous $25K CCIL seed grant that allowed the researchers to develop their initial data. The team will start the new project in April 2023.

“We are grateful for the support from NCI,” said Wang. “Seeing our cancer immunotherapy research appreciated by the NCI and our peers is a morale boost for our work.”

Editor’s notes:

This research will be funded by NIH 1R21CA270872-01A1.

Written by Jonathan King, CCIL Communications Team