malignant cancer cell

Cancer researcher gets federal funding to test immunotherapy in drug-resistant prostate cancer


UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center clinical scientist Chengfei Liu is on a mission to improve treatment for prostate cancer and a new federal grant will help his research.

Man with dark hair wearing a suit smiling into camera.
Chengfei Liu

Liu, an assistant professor in the Department of Urologic Surgery, was recently awarded a $1.4 million grant from the Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program. He aims to try to understand why some advanced prostate cancer is resistant to immunotherapy in order to develop new possible avenues for treatment.

Prostate cancer remains lethal in advanced cases

Prostate cancer is diagnosed more than any other type of cancer in men and is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men, next to lung cancer.

Over the past decades, new advances in immunotherapy have led to promising discoveries regarding the immune system and how it can be harnessed to treat cancer, including prostate cancer.

For instance, preclinical research suggested that the standard prostate cancer-fighting drug enzalutamide may work better when combined with the immunotherapy drug atezolizumab, which fuels the body’s T cells to kill cancer cells.

Unfortunately, past clinical trials using this drug combination failed to extend the overall survival in late-stage prostate cancer patients and the underlying mechanisms are still elusive.

“We will provide new insights into the role of immune checkpoint inhibitors, such as atezolizumab, with the goal of developing new immune therapeutic strategies that have great potential to increase efficacy of enzalutamide in lethal prostate cancer cases,” Liu said. “Our ultimate hope is that our research will translate into clinical trials.”

Some cancers thrive by shutting down the body’s immune response that otherwise would attack cancer cells. Liu explained that immune checkpoint inhibitors work by blocking certain cancer or immune cell surface proteins from binding with their partner proteins, thereby preventing them from interfering with the immune response mechanism.

The anticipated results of the study will provide a strong rationale to initiate clinical trials to treat prostate cancer patients by developing strategies to target signaling of a certain gene (CD200/CD200R) in the foreseeable future.

“Not only will our research help us gain knowledge of prostate cancer disease progression and understand the mechanisms of immunotherapy resistance, but it will also facilitate new strategy development to treat advanced prostate cancer,” Liu said.

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated center serving the Central Valley and inland Northern California, a region of more than 6 million people. Its specialists provide compassionate, comprehensive care for more than 100,000 adults and children every year and access to more than 200 active clinical trials at any given time. Its innovative research program engages more than 240 scientists at UC Davis who work collaboratively to advance discovery of new tools to diagnose and treat cancer. Patients have access to leading-edge care, including immunotherapy and other targeted treatments. Its Office of Community Outreach and Engagement addresses disparities in cancer outcomes across diverse populations, and the cancer center provides comprehensive education and workforce development programs for the next generation of clinicians and scientists. For more information, visit

Clinical Trials at UC Davis