Bio-X Affiliated Faculty

Dr. Sunwoo's laboratory is focused on two primary areas of research: (1) the immune response to head and neck cancer and to a tumorigenic population of cells within these malignancies called cancer stem cells; (2) the developmental programs of a special lymphocyte population involved in innate immunity called natural killer (NK) cells.

The overarching goal of the laboratory is to understand how NK cells, in the broader context of the host immune system, protect against developing and metastasizing tumor cells, especially a rare population of tumor-initiating cells called cancer stem cells. These tumorigenic cells have been isolated from a number of solid tumor malignancies, including human head and neck cancer. Heterogeneity of immune potency between individuals with these malignancies is well accepted but poorly understood. The work in Dr. Sunwoo's lab will address the questions of how and why the immune system can respond to and control malignant cells in some contexts but not in others. Clarity of the underlying basis for these differences would potentially explain why certain individuals are more susceptible to cancer, lead to better screening strategies, and ultimately provide much needed insight into how the host immune system can be manipulated to control cancer.

Despite the well-documented importance of NK cells in innate immunity, the development of this lymphocyte population is still poorly understood. In many patients afflicted with cancer, the NK cells from those individuals do not respond to typical NK cell stimuli. A more complete understanding of NK cell development may ultimately reveal potential ways by which malignancies render NK cells dysfunctional. Dr. Sunwoo's laboratory is particularly interested in understanding the transcriptional regulation of NK cell development and differentiation from stem and progenitor cells.