Celebrating World Immunology Day

Immunology is the study of the immune system, your body’s natural defense system to keep you healthy. Cancer immunology is one branch which studies interactions between cancer cells and the immune system.

In honor of International Immunology Day on April 29, we spoke with Yi-Ping (Irene) Shih, Ph.D., senior research scientist at Earle A. Chiles Research Institute, a division of Providence Cancer Institute of Oregon. Irene is a member of the Adoptive Cell Therapy Laboratory, which focuses on one type of immunotherapy called adoptive cell therapy. The lab is headed by Eric Tran, Ph.D., associate member, Earle A. Chiles Research Institute. 

Adoptive cell therapy involves removing tumor-reactive T cells (an immune cell capable of destroying cancer cells) from either the patient’s tumor or blood. The T cells are amplified or engineered in a lab and then returned to the patient to combat cancer.

Read on to learn more about Irene, her goals as a cancer researcher and what advice she has for anyone considering a career in research.

Could you tell us a little about yourself? What schools did you attend to study cancer research?

My undergraduate major was in medical technology, and I volunteered in a cancer research lab during my third and fourth years of college. I found myself enjoying cancer research more than working as a clinical laboratory scientist. To delve into more advanced science, I pursued a graduate program in the public health department at Yang-Ming University in Taiwan.

I spent the first two years studying how the hepatitis B virus promotes liver cancer formation.  In 2003, I switched my project to study the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 1 (SARS-CoV) to help resolve the urgent health crisis. In the early stages of the outbreak, I established screening methods to identify potential patients. I also developed two antibodies against SARS-CoV infection.

After I received my Ph.D., I went to UC Davis for postdoctoral training, where I studied how a tumor suppressor gene regulates blood vessel growth in tumors. The study went well, and as a result I received an NIH K01 grant.

What made you decide on a career in research?

After volunteering in a cancer research lab, I realized that research provides me with opportunities to continuously learn and hone my problem-solving skills. Also, I enjoyed planning and conducting experiments. During the SARS-CoV outbreak, I found that I could contribute my professional skills to help people. The ability to make meaningful contributions to addressing health crises and advancing scientific knowledge ultimately solidified my decision to pursue a career in research.

What are your responsibilities in the Adoptive Cell Therapy Lab and what does a typical day look like?

Adoptive cell therapy can cure some patients with metastatic cancer, but unfortunately, many patients still do not benefit from this therapy.  My goal is to develop more effective cell therapies for patients. One of my current projects is identifying T-cell receptors that can target tumors which could be used to treat other patients. Another project is identifying new ways to grow and generate better T cells for therapy. 

On an average workday, I spend approximately 50% of my time conducting hands-on experiments and the other 50% analyzing data, planning experiments and reading cutting-edge articles.

What’s your proudest achievement so far?

My contribution during times of crisis, such as when a novel virus (SARS-CoV) emerged in 2003. I was able to generate screening reagents and potential therapeutic reagents to aid in combating the virus. Additionally, I contributed to the development of three different versions of T-cell infusion products in the lab at Earle A. Chiles Research Institute, which has been immensely gratifying and fulfilling.

In your area of research, what keeps you motivated?

Witnessing cancer patients improve after receiving the infusion products we generate keeps me motivated. Seeing tangible benefits for patients drives me to continue pushing boundaries and making advancements in the field.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

To maintain an open and detail-oriented mind, as it enhances the chances of discovering new things. Additionally, it’s crucial to remember that only data that is reproducible and confirmed by multiple aspects can be considered real and reliable.

What advice do you have for someone considering research as a career?

Recognize that research is a journey of self-learning and exploration. It’s important to choose a field based on your interests and passion, as these are essential factors that will drive you to continue along this pathway. Additionally, be prepared to embrace challenges and setbacks, as they are inherent parts of the research process. Stay curious, persistent and open-minded, and always strive for excellence in your work.

What do you like to do for fun?

I enjoy researching tasty foods in my free time. Exploring delicious recipes online and successfully replicating them is enjoyable and rewarding.

About Earle A. Chiles Research Institute

Since 1993, cancer research has been the primary focus of the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute, the research arm of Providence Cancer Institute of Oregon. Under the leadership of Walter J. Urba, M.D., Ph.D., our team of physicians and scientists work together to improve cancer treatment methods – seamlessly joining lab research and clinical trials with medical practice. 

Our main area of research is cancer immunotherapy, and with the advancements in genomic sequencing, we are bringing together the power of immunotherapy and personalized medicine to accelerate leading-edge research and groundbreaking discoveries for patients with cancer.  

Related news

Providence study of novel immunotherapy for pancreatic cancer featured in New England Journal of Medicine

FDA approves cellular therapy, offering hope to more people with cancer

Documentary film features Providence patients, researchers in pursuit of revolutionary cancer therapy

Previous Article
Effective strategies for managing epilepsy
Effective strategies for managing epilepsy

Learn key strategies for managing epilepsy from the doctors at Providence. Understand triggers, treatments ...

Next Article
How bad is it to take expired medication?
How bad is it to take expired medication?

Many of the medications in your medicine cabinet may be expired, but some are safer than others to take pas...