UConn professor tackling cell research to treat cancer

Laijun Lai, Associate Research Professor in the Department of Allied Health Sciences at the University of Connecticut, talks about his latest research about cancer to a Daily Campus writer on March 29th.  (Zhelun Lang/The Daily Campus)

Laijun Lai, an Associate Research Professor at the University of Connecticut is currently doing research to find treatment for cancers, autoimmune deficiencies and genetic diseases through the use of T cells and stem cells.

The first area of his research focuses on gene engineering approaches to treating cancers and autoimmune diseases.

Lai’s research has resulted in two patents and several grants from NIH, the American Cancer Society and the Connecticut Regenerative Medicine Fund.

“We are very excited with our results. We believe that our research will eventually lead to the new approach in the treatment of cancer, autoimmune diseases or genetic diseases, such as (DGS),” Lai said.

The progression of cancerous tumors is accompanied by a very significant suppression of the immune system, which interferes with the body’s ability to send an effective immune response in order to eliminate chemotherapy, Lai said.

In terms of autoimmune disease, disorders develop when the immune system targets and destroys the body’s own tissues, Lai said.

Therefore, the study investigates new approaches to enhance T cell function for use in the treatment of cancer, while also looking for new ways to inhibit T cell function to treat autoimmune disease, Lai said.

“Several T cell inhibitor molecules have been identified. We’re trying to find a new T cell inhibitor molecule by using the bioinformatic approach to identify several new genes that are related to T cell inhibitor molecules,” Lai said.

He then used the gene engineering approach to produce recombinant proteins from these genes. And these preliminary studies have shown that in a dish, the proteins can inhibit T cell function.

“By using the gene engineering approach we can enhance the immune function that can fight a lot of diseases, such as cancer and infections,” Lai said.

“The second area of my research is using stem cell technology to prevent and treat autoimmune disease,” Lai said.

The thymus, an organ of the immune system, is the primary organ that naturally produces T cells for the body.

“Thymic epithelial cells (TECs) mediate T cell selections, generating T cells that are able to react with foreign antigens, such as bacteria and viruses,” Lai said.

In the prevention or treatment of autoimmune diseases, it would induce immune tolerance of certain antigens by using the mechanisms that would occur in the thymus under normal circumstances, Lai said.

“However, the thymus undergoes age-dependent involution resulting in a serious compromise of T cell function in the elderly,” Lai said. “Many studies have shown that embryonic stem cells (ESCs) or pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) have huge potential to treat many diseases because these cells can change into many types of cells in a dish.”

Through the transplantation of ESCs can cause immune tolerance to the disease causative self-antigens and treat or even prevent autoimmune diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis, Lai wrote in a research statement.

“The third area of my research is using stem cell technology to model and treat genetic diseases such as DiGeorge Syndrome—also known as DGS,” Lai said.

DGS is one of the most common genetic diseases in humans.

“One of the characteristic features of DGS is that the patient has a profound thymic aplasia or hypoplasia that results in T cell immunodeficiency,” Lai said, “So we are going to determine the ability of ESC-derived TECs to prevent and treat DGS.”


Sabrina O’Brien is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached by email at sabrina.o’brien@uconn.edu.