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Lingyin Li to join Stanford ChEM-H as assistant professor of biochemistry

Sep 1 2015

Lingyin Li, whose work focuses on the immune system’s innate ability to fight cancer, joins Stanford as assistant professor in the department of biochemistry and as a fellow of Stanford ChEM-H

By Amy Adams

Lingyin Li, who describes her work as the child of chemistry and human health, will be joining Stanford as assistant professor in the department of biochemistry and as a fellow of Stanford ChEM-H. She recently finished her postdoctoral work at the Harvard Medical School.

Li said she heard about ChEM-H when she was still a graduate student in organic chemistry but working on human embryonic stem cells. ChEM-H brings together chemists, engineers, biologists, and clinicians from across Stanford schools and departments to understand life at a chemical level and apply that knowledge to improving human health. 

“I am a chemist by training but a biologist at heart,” she said. “Being in a chemistry department gave me an identity crisis. I didn’t fit in.” Li said she knew when she heard about ChEM-H she was interested in joining the institute.

Chaitan Khosla, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering and director of ChEM-H, has said he wants to train a new generation of scientist who speaks both chemistry and biology.

“We are looking to build bridges between people who have considerable depth in some area of physical science and some area of biology and she’s a really good example of someone who fits that mold,” said Khosla, who is also the Wells H. Rauser and Harold M. Petiprin Professor.

Li’s work focuses on the immune system’s innate ability to fight cancer. In the past few years more evidence has appeared that our body can recognize and fight cancerous tissue, but the basic mechanisms of how the process works are not well known.

“Activating the immune system is a dangerous game,” Li said. “Only when the basic mechanism is known can we safely design small molecules to target that response.”

Li hopes to get a handle on this relatively unknown process by studying cancer therapeutics that work through unknown mechanisms. These don’t fight cancer through any of the usual ways like disrupting cell division, and so could potentially be working by activating the body’s innate immune response.

Suzanne Pfeffer, chair of the biochemistry department, said Li’s work straddles chemistry and biology in highly innovative ways. “She has identified a really important biomedical research topic, namely understanding the molecular events that underlie innate immune signaling. All of us are excited to watch how she will merge chemistry and biochemistry and impact anti-cancer and anti-viral therapies in the future.”

Li said that work she did as a postdoctoral fellow, which was on a related topic, has generated a cancer drug lead that is now being pursued by the pharmaceutical industry.

“I’m very a happy that my basic research led to a drug target and lead,” she said. But said she wants to stay focused on understanding the basic mechanisms rather than producing the drugs themselves. Understanding the biology, and the chemistry of the molecules that alter those biologic processes, could ultimately produce entirely new classes of drugs.