Lili Yang, Ph.D.

Lili Yang, Ph.D. 

Associate Professor, Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics


Lili Yang, Ph.D., studies how the immune system responds to chronic diseases like cancer. The immune system comprises a small, powerful network of blood cells that survey, detect and destroy almost all harmful invasions by germs or viruses. Some cancers can evade immune system detection because cancer cells are not true invaders; they are the body’s own cells that have turned malignant through rapid, uncontrolled division. Yang aims to develop gene therapies that engineer patient immune systems to recognize and kill cancer cells while leaving healthy tissue unharmed.  

A major focus in the Yang lab is engineering blood-forming stem cells, which give rise to all blood and immune cell types, including the white blood cells called T cells that fight against disease-causing invaders. Among these T cells is a rare group of powerful cells called “invariant natural killer T” (or iNKT) cells that have the capacity to respond to diseases and are important to the immune system’s regulation of cancer, infections, allergies and autoimmune diseases. Unfortunately, the clinical application of iNKT cells is restricted by their scarcity and high variability; they make up approximately 0.001 to 1 percent of all blood cells in humans, with the number at the low end for cancer patients. Yang and her team have developed a novel approach to engineer cancer patients’ blood-forming stem cells to generate higher numbers of these powerhouse immune cells. Because blood-forming stem cells are self-renewing, Yang’s engineered cells could provide cancer patients with enough iNKT cells to fight the disease throughout their lifetimes.

Yang also studies the molecular and genetic forces that increase or suppress immune cells’ effectiveness against tumors. She is particularly interested in identifying the molecules that influence the activities of tumor infiltrating lymphocytes, a subset of immune cells that leave the bloodstream to infiltrate tumors. With this information, she hopes to identify molecules that can be targeted by new drugs to boost anti-tumor immunity and suppress tumor growth.

Yang earned a doctorate degree in biology and completed post-doctoral training at Caltech. 


Honors & Affiliations


  • Faculty Excellence Award for Outstanding Research Publication, UCLA Life Sciences, 2017           
  • Young Investigator Award, American Association of Immunologists, 2017 
  • Outstanding New Investigator Award, American Society of Gene & Cell Therapy, 2017     
  • TR35 Award, MIT Technology Review Magazine, 2007       


  • UCLA Clinical and Translational Science Institute 
  • UCLA Cell and Developmental Biology Graduate Programs in Bioscience Home Area
  • UCLA Immunity, Microbes and Molecular Pathogenesis Graduate Programs in Bioscience Home Area
  • UCLA Molecular Pharmacology Graduate Programs in Bioscience Home Area
  • UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center


Yang’s research is funded by the National Institutes of Health, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the Concern Foundation, the STOP Cancer Foundation, the Prostate Cancer Foundation and the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center, including support from the Jean Perkins Foundation through the Stem Cell Nano-Medicine Planning Award.