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UH Research Team Awarded Pilot Program Grant to Improve the Design of Immunotherapies for Underrepresented Minorities

Updated: Mar 28

For Immediate Release: March 27, 2024

When University of Houston Doctoral Candidate, Jaila Lewis, first heard of a cancer cluster in Houston’s Kashmere Gardens and the Fifth Ward, it ignited an idea. She was inspired to investigate the factors involved that may have led to the proliferation of cancers appearing in children as young as 8-years-old. 

“I read in a Houston Chronicle article that many people within Houston’s Fifth Ward were getting diagnosed with lung cancer despite ever smoking a day in their lives,” Lewis said. “This caused them to get cancer, either lung cancer or esophageal cancer. When I sat down with some members of the Fifth Ward, I heard that neighborhood kids as young as 8 were getting cancer. The cancer cluster was linked to a railroad yard which was located near the kids.” 

Through the mentorship of UH researcher, Dr. Dinler Amaral Antunes, Lewis helped design a promising new HEALTH-RCMI Pilot Program study which explores a more personalized approach to developing immunotherapies specifically for underrepresented minorities. 

“There are many different strategies that use immunotherapies. Some of them are more general,” Antunes said. “They are not specifically developed for the patient. We are working more on the personalized side of this research.” 

With support from HEALTH-RCMI, Antunes and Lewis have launched the study entitled, Improving the Design of Immunotherapies for Underrepresented Minorities. This initiative was funded $50,000 by NIMHD and HEALTH-RCMI. 

Understanding the impact and implications of how cancer immunotherapy leverages the patient’s immune system can bring forth better regression for their tumors,” Lewis said. “This understanding can better help a patient go into remission. I thought, I would like to focus on this and understand how this can impact underrepresented minorities.” 

Antunes leads an innovative UH research group which focuses on studying the mechanisms involved in cellular immunity. In this pilot program study, Antunes uses a computational design to study human leukocyte antigen (HLA) receptors and assesses their binding with T-cell lymphocytes. The T-cell lymphocytes can potentially trigger the elimination of a tumor.  

When Lewis first approached Antunes with the idea, Antunes responded, “this sounds like something that hasn’t been done before.” 

“I remember bringing to Dinler--’what if there’s a way that we can isolate one particular gene that’s causing multiple cancer types within the Black and Hispanic patients, and we can identify the antigens that are being expressed by them?’” Lewis asked. “Perhaps, we can make an off-the-shelf cancer vaccine by utilizing our computational pipeline, based off the papers that I read.” 

According to the team’s initial findings, unfortunately, some HLA alleles prioritized for the development of new treatments may not be as prevalent in underrepresented minorities, which may reduce the effectiveness of immunotherapies. Through utilizing a new structure-based analysis, the team hopes to better predict HLA binding which can trigger T-cells, in turn enabling the design of vaccines that can enhance the immune response for the HLA alleles in underrepresented minorities.  

“Even when you have equal access to care, even the best treatment you have, some groups might not respond, based on their ethnicity,” Antunes said. “That is what made me very interested in this topic. We are trying to use personalized treatment, but it will not work if the tools needed for designing these treatments are not working properly. We have an additional challenge. It is important to understand how we can fix the tools to be able to deliver the best care that is available right now.” 

From a personal perspective, Antunes has dealt with the devastating loss of family members due to cancer. Lewis has also experienced how an uncle’s courageous cancer battle led to survival and remission.  Lewis emphasized how important it was to offer other cancer treatments for underrepresented minorities.  

“So, with the RCMI grant, there’s an importance of involving the community here in Houston and helping educate the population,” Lewis said. “When most people think of cancer, they think of chemotherapy, but there are other options at hand. If we can expand immunotherapy to be more inclusive, this could help improve life expectancy. When you focus on a minority group, you can extend that to all other groups, and you can have personalized treatment options for everyone.” 

--Alison Medley 

If you would like more information about this topic, please contact Alison Medley at 713.320.0933 or email 




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