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Keck Foundation funds novel approach to understanding cancer cell signals

Joshua Elias

The W.M. Keck Foundation awarded a $1 million grant to Institute for Chemical Biology member Joshua Elias.


Joshua Elias, PhD, assistant professor of chemical and systems biology, has been awarded a three-year, $1 million grant by the W.M. Keck Foundation to fund a pioneering approach to deciphering the signals that cancer cells present to the immune system.

Cytotoxic T cells, also known as killer T cells, patrol the body to detect and destroy cells that are damaged, cancerous or infected by viruses. T cells bind to bits of proteins, called peptide antigens, on the surface of other cells. When they recognize foreign antigens, the T cells attack.

But in the case of cancer cells this recognition does not always work properly. So if scientists can identify antigens that distinguish cancer cells, they may be able to develop therapies that encourage T cells to recognize and destroy the cancer.

To pinpoint these unique antigens, Elias and his team will use mass spectrometry to identify and quantify the vast repertoires of potential antigens on cancer cells. Through a novel combination of techniques, they will be able to detect low-level antigens and those that originate from previously unknown proteins.

While this work could eventually be applied to many types of cancer, initially the researchers will focus on B-cell lymphomas, a convenient model system with clear health relevance. According to Elias, the methods he proposes will "enable us to discover peptides that no one even considers now because they're just so hard to identify with conventional means. We're in a great position to leverage all these techniques that are just now reaching their maturity, to do some really exciting biology."

The Keck Foundation supports innovative approaches in science, engineering and medical research. The foundation also sponsors programs for undergraduate education and Southern California organizations serving children and families.