Yvonne Chen, Ph.D.

Yvonne Chen, Ph.D. 

Associate Professor, Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics


Yvonne Chen, Ph.D., applies biomolecular engineering and synthetic biology techniques to make adoptive T-cell immunotherapies safer and more effective for the treatment of cancer. Adoptive T-cell immunotherapy is the process of engineering cancer patients’ own T cells (cells in the immune system) to fight cancer by equipping them with a cancer-recognizing receptor, known as a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR). The modified cells are then returned to the patient as a targeted therapy. This method has shown remarkable promise against multiple types of cancer.

One major obstacle to the broad application of this therapy is the inability to control the CAR-T cells from attacking healthy cells that display the same biochemical marker on their surface as tumor cells. Chen aims to overcome this hurdle by engineering CAR-T cells that use a two-step process to identify cancer cells. These next-generation CAR-T cells would identify cancer cells by their surface markers (similar to current methods), then deliver an engineered, conditionally active protein into those cells and seek a second tumor-associated signal. Only the cells that display both signals will be killed, thus sparing healthy cells.

Another potentially dangerous side effect of CAR-T therapy is cytokine release syndrome. All T cells naturally release cytokines, chemical messengers that help stimulate and direct immune response. In the case of cytokine release syndrome, a rapid and massive release of cytokines into the bloodstream can lead to dangerously high fevers and in some cases death. Chen and her lab are developing DNA-encoded circuits that enable T cells to rein in and prevent excessive cytokine production and signaling.

Solid tumors – tumors that grow as masses in the body – are difficult to treat because they have the ability to secrete proteins that suppress the immune system. For this reason, CAR-T therapies have shown a limited effect on solid tumors. In order to address this problem, the Chen lab engineered CAR-T cells that can detect tumors’ suppressive proteins and use them as a stimulant to trigger robust attacks on tumor cells. This approach enables T cells to convert solid tumors’ defense mechanism into a weapon that can be used to intensify the immune system’s attack on the tumor cells.

Chen earned her doctorate in chemical engineering from the California Institute of Technology and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in the department of systems biology at Harvard Medical School.

Honors & Affiliations


  • Rising Stars of Cancer Research Lectureship, St. Jude Comprehensive Cancer Center, 2021
  • Lloyd J. Old STAR Award, Cancer Research Institute, 2019
  • Emerging Leader Award, Mark Foundation, 2018
  • Excellence in Teaching Award, Northrop Grumman, 2017
  • CAREER Award, National Science Foundation, 2016
  • Young Investigator Award in Cell and Gene Therapy for Cancer, Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy, 2016
  • Hellman Fellowship, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2015
  • Director’s Early Independence Award, National Institutes of Health, 2012
  • Junior fellow, Harvard Society of Fellows, 2011–2013


  • American Institute of Chemical Engineers
  • American Association for Cancer Research
  • Editorial Board, Current Opinion in Biotechnology
  • Editorial Board, Cell
  • Editorial Board, Cell Systems
  • Associate Editor, Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer



Chen’s work has been supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy, the National Science Foundation, the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, the United States Department of Defense, a Lloyd J. Old STAR Award from the Cancer Research Institute, an Emerging Leaders Award from the Mark Foundation for Cancer Research, and the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center, including support from The Rose Hills Foundation Innovator Grant.


Biomolecular Engineering T-Cells to Treat Cancer
UCLA biomolecular engineer Yvonne Chen explains recent advances her work has made in engineering cellular receptors to better target cancer cells to improve cancer treatments. [Show ID: 36313] Please Note: Knowledge about health and medicine is constantly evolving. This information may become out of date.