Rising star in cancer research recruited through CoEE Program

New CoEE Endowed Chair Dr. Zihai Li to join MUSC’s Hollings Cancer Center; researcher looks for ways to use human immune system to treat and prevent cancer.

A rising star in the field of cancer immunology, Zihai “Zack” Li, M.D., Ph.D., has been recruited to South Carolina through the state’s Centers of Economic Excellence (CoEE) Program. Li will join the Medical University of South Carolina’s (MUSC) Hollings Cancer Center as the CoEE Endowed Chair in Cancer Stem Cell Biology.

One of the most innovative and promising fields of cancer research during the last decade has been cancer immunology—finding ways to help the body’s immune system recognize and fight cancer cells and control tumor growth. Types of immunotherapy, such as cancer vaccines and antibody treatment, have the potential to be more effective, more targeted and less toxic than traditional cancer treatments.

Li’s work captured international attention when his study was published in the October 2009 issue of Stem Cells. The study revealed the potential for human stem cells to be used in the creation of a vaccine to protect against colon cancer and potentially for other types of cancer as well.

Li will lead the Center of Economic Excellence in Cancer Stem Cell Biology. MUSC and Clemson University are partners in the Center along with Health Sciences South Carolina.
Also, Li will direct the cancer immunology program at the Hollings Cancer Center and serve as co-director of the Cell Therapy Facility and professor of Medicine, Microbiology, and Immunology at MUSC.

“Dr. Li is a dynamic individual who has been recognized as an outstanding clinician, translational scientist, teacher and mentor,” said Dr. John Raymond, MUSC’s vice president for academic affairs and provost.

Raymond noted that Li’s work could lead to cell-based therapies and new drugs to help the immune system fight cancer; the development of such treatments in South Carolina could result in job and economic growth. Li already holds a U.S. patent and four investigational new drug applications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He also has received several grants from the National Institutes of Health to fund his work.

Li said he decided to relocate to South Carolina from the University of Connecticut because of MUSC’s tremendous growth in biomedical research and because Hollings Cancer Center holds National Cancer Institute designation, one of only 65 such centers in the nation and the only one in South Carolina. Li also was attracted by MUSC’s award of a highly competitive Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health as well as the state’s CoEE Program, which reflects a statewide commitment to research and innovation.

“The CoEE Program played a huge role in my decision to move my lab to MUSC,” Li said. “The CoEE Program to me is a long-term commitment by South Carolina to support ingenious science that benefits the citizens of South Carolina and stimulates economic and job growth.”

At Hollings Cancer Center, Li notes he will be working to develop safe and efficient cancer vaccines, to uncover the power of stem cells for cancer therapy, and to decode the mystery of basic guiding principles of how the immune system works to defend against a variety of diseases.
Like MUSC’s leaders, Li believes his work could have several commercial applications and lead to job creation in South Carolina.

“I want to move our work closer and closer to finding a cure for human cancer,” he said. “These efforts of biomedical research could lead to the launch of clinical trials and eventually to the development of new diagnostics and therapeutics for human diseases. Our work will stimulate job growth in the health care industry and biomedical research.”

In addition, he believes that his work could improve the quality of life in South Carolina.

“We are contributing to the betterment of human health in general. Our clinical studies will be done in South Carolina which will directly benefit South Carolinians. We will also contribute to the training and retaining of skillful jobs, all of which will lead to improvement of the quality of life in South Carolina.”

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