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My, Oh Myeloid Cells: The Jin Lab Taps into a Key Cell for Cancer Research

When a foreign microorganism enters the body, a network of organs, cells, and antibodies works together to combat the invader and protect the body from infection and disease. Similarly, a network of researchers in the Jin Lab at the Perelman School of Medicine has been working together to understand disease prevention in the human body, specifically focused on finding a cure for cancer.

Chengcheng Jin

The lab, led by Chengcheng Jin, PhD, an assistant professor of Cancer Biology and Microbiology, is investigating how the immune system co-evolves with tumors during cancer progression. While the immune system’s job is to help the body fight all types of harmful cells including bacteria and viruses, it can often fail when it goes up against cancer cells, which can emerge due to hereditary or environmental factors, like chemicals or radiation. The Jin Lab wants to understand why the immune system is not only failing to fight the cancer, but also actually promoting its growth.

“Cancer is a devastating disease, especially for the type of cancer we’re studying in the lab: lung cancer,” said Jin. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide, according to the American Cancer Society. “From a scientific point of view, cancer is a very unique disease to investigate, and can lead us to better understanding how the immune system works.”

A key element of Jin’s research is her attention to myeloid cells, the most abundant immune cells in multiple cancer types that play a pivotal role in cancer progression. For instance, myeloid cells can mediate tissue remodeling to form tumors in the body, as well as drive inflammation in the immune system to stimulate tumor growth. With her lab, Jin aims to target these cells and reprogram them in the tumor microenvironment to revert, rather than support, tumor growth. They hope this work will lead to more effective cancer therapies in the future that harness this part of the immune system to help.

“There have been a lot of groundbreaking developments and successes in cancer research in recent years, but still, only a minority of cancer patients 20 to 40 percent respond to current immunotherapy,” said Jin. “The biggest challenge is understanding why the immune system is ultimately failing patients, and how we can target this process to improve cancer therapy.”

Myeloid cells
A confocal microscopy image of the lung tumor microenvironment. The cyan-colored cells are developing lung tumor cells. The various colors surrounding them are myeloid cells.

Doing research during her time as a Biological Science undergraduate student at Tsinghua University in China first sparked her interest in studying cancer: Jin contributed to a project on signal transduction pathways (signals sent through cells to invoke a response in the body) in cancer cells. When pursuing her doctorate degree in Cell Biology at Yale University (which she completed in 2013), Jin became fascinated by the immunology side of cancer. That interest led her to concentrate on tumor immunology in her postdoc study at MIT, and continuously in her current lab at Penn Medicine, which opened in January 2020. Although the lab had to pause operations during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team was able to quickly get back on track, and their research is now gaining momentum, Jin said.

Her work has been recognized with notable selective awards in the last year. This spring, she was one of two Penn Medicine researchers selected as a 2022 Pew-Stewart Scholar for Cancer Research by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which provides a four-year grant to investigate how the nervous system regulates immune responses to lung cancer. In the fall, the National Institutes of Health selected her for its New Innovator Award, which supports unusually innovative research from early-career investigators.

Members of the Jin Lab gather at a picnic table at a park

Jin’s team of postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and undergraduate researchers engage in cross-disciplinary collaboration with other investigators across Penn. They actively work with cancer biologists and neuroscientists (for projects where their work intersects with studies of the nervous system), along with clinical teams in Pulmonary Medicine and Thoracic Oncology who work on lung cancer. The team compares their findings from mouse models in the lab with patient samples collected from these departments, determining if their outcomes correspond and can be applied to human subjects.

“I was drawn to Penn because of its expansive research community,” said Jin. “Not only are we [the Jin lab] a diverse team with varied backgrounds in research, but we have the opportunity to work closely with other labs and departments to help further our findings.”

When they’re not in the lab, Jin and her team enjoy spending time together in team-building activities and celebrations, such as holiday parties, lunches in local parks, and outings to museums in Philadelphia.

“One of the things I enjoy most about my job is being able to train the next generation of scientists,” said Jin. “What we’re doing research-wise is super exciting, but it’s important to pass on this knowledge and foster an environment that allows us all to work cohesively together, all with the same goal to cure cancer.”


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