Carnegie Mellon University
June 14, 2022

En Cai Receives Curci Foundation Grant to Support T-Cell Research

By Kirsten Heuring

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS
  • 412-268-9982

En Cai, assistant professor of biological sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, has received a grant from the Shurl and Kay Curci Foundation. The grant provides funding for two years and will help Cai to jumpstart her lab that studies T-cell communication at the Mellon College of Science.

“This is the very first grant for the lab, so it's very unique, and we are very happy about that,” said Cai.

Cai started working at Carnegie Mellon University in fall 2021. She is studying T-cell activation and inhibition mechanisms in an effort to discover how T-cells communicate with each other and respond to their environments. To do this, she is looking at T-cells at the microscopic level to see how they attack tumor cells.

“Sometimes T-cells fail to attack tumor cells and that is because the tumor environment makes them unable to do that,” said Cai. “We want to understand how the environment has an effect on T-cells and how we can restore this mechanism.”

To be able to look at the cells in detail and see their movements, Cai will use some of the grant money to invest in a specialized microscope, known as a lattice light sheet microscope.

“The microscope will be able to capture subcellular details of the cells, not only the cell itself, and how the cells use their receptors and membranes to detect their environment and make decisions,” said Cai. 

Cai has used similar technology to find that T-cells have tiny finger-like protrusions called microvilli that constantly move around and react to antigens on the surfaces of other cells. With the new microscope, she and her lab will be able to produce higher-definition images of the cells’ interactions with each other. The microscope will also show how cells interact within living tissue instead of just on a microscope slide.

Cai plans to use the remainder of the grant to hire research assistants and postdoctoral researchers and build the lab’s resources.

“With this support from Curci, we are building a team of scientists that’s going to work on the exciting research project,” said Cai.

The Curci Foundation offers grants to scientific research which creates a healthier and more sustainable research for humans. The organization has provided funding for other biological sciences research projects at CMU.