All About Immuno-Oncology: Ohio State’s Zihai Li Explains

Zihai Li

While attending medical school in China, Zihai Li, MD, PhD, became fascinated by the role that the body’s immune system played in fighting disease, as well as the effectiveness of vaccines.

“I saw how a single shot of a vaccine could eradicate a disease like smallpox,” Li says. “That has always been my dream and the dream of generations of immunologists — to do something like this for cancer.”

Li is now a leader in the effort to make this dream a reality as the founding director of the new Pelotonia Institute for Immuno-Oncology (PIIO) at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).

Get to know Dr. Li, and learn how immuno-oncology could one day revolutionize the treatment and prevention of cancer.

“This opportunity at Ohio State was amazing.”

“There is still so much work to be done. We needed to up our game by improving access to cutting-edge research and to have the infrastructure and patient population in order to add something fundamental to immuno-oncology. This opportunity at Ohio State was amazing. There is such a huge commitment from the university and the Pelotonia community. There is a commitment to do something major to advance immuno-oncology.”

How is immuno-oncology different than immunotherapy?

"The immune system is hardwired to deal with infectious diseases and cancer. The study of the immune system is called cancer immunology, and through it, we now understand that we can help turn on the body’s immune system to fight cancer – that’s called immunotherapy. The discipline of treating patients with immunotherapy – but not the the three traditional cancer treatments: surgery, radiation and chemotherapy – is called immuno-oncology. This is a new modality and it has so much promise."

Step by step

“There are four steps [of immuno-oncology]. The first is to establish the principles of immunotherapy, and this has been accomplished thanks to the work of so many great people over the years. The second is to make immunotherapy effective for some cancer patients, which has already begun. The third step is to make it effective for treating everybody with cancer. Finally, we need to utilize the strategy to stop cancer from forming in the first place. It involves creation of cancer vaccines. For example, we have a good vaccine that could prevent liver cancers caused by Hepatitis B. We also have a great HPV vaccine, which can help the body to not only fight the infection by HPV but also prevent most cervical cancers.”

Something to build upon

“We’ve found immunotherapy to be effective in about 20 percent of the patients with metastatic cancer – this gives us hope. It means there are still a lot of things we have not yet discovered, and that is why research and creating the PIIO is so imperative. We need to identify every way the immune system can go wrong and go about fixing these problems."

Hitting the ground running

"The first step for me was to learn about the OSUCCC – James. We have a tremendous number of world-class investigators, researchers and physicians already working in immuno-oncology and The James is already at the forefront. We have labs already working on cell therapy and natural killer cells, and we are leading a number of national clinical trials.

"Next, we plan to recruit more than 30 investigators – the best and most talented people who are doing ground-breaking work. With our current team and these new investigators, we will build a top-notch immuno-oncology monitoring platform to support them so they can understand more and more about the immune system. Finally, we will grow our science in several key areas, such as cell therapy, immunogenomics and developing the next generation of immunotherapeutics.

"Embedded deep in my DNA is the idea that we are all here to contribute something to society. The things we are learning in immuno-oncology can be applied to saving people’s lives, and what can be more rewarding than that?"

Riding into the future of cancer care

"Riding in Pelotonia has inspired me. It was not [just] a cycling event, it was an amazing, confidence-building spiritual journey to be able to ride with so many passionate people who have been touched by cancer. To see so many cancer survivors riding was really incredible."

Learn more about the Pelotonia Institute for Immuno-Oncology from Dr. Li on our Cancer-Free World Podcast.