Work in the Pillai laboratory focuses at the interface between innate and adaptive immunity, immune tolerance, and anti-tumor activity and has been continuously funded by the NIH and/or nationally recognized foundation support since 2007.
The Pillai group was the first to delineate that innate invariant natural killer T cells (iNKT cells), a key regulatory cell population of the innate immune axis, can induce expansion of regulatory T cells (Treg) across histocompatibility barriers (Blood, 2009), a key discovery that has opened new avenues of investigation in optimizing mismatched transplants of organs and bone marrow, particularly salient in the field of haploidentical transplantation. The group has developed in pre-clinical mouse models of novel transplant preparative regimens that have reduced toxicity (Shuyu E et al, Blood 2017). This regimen is currently being developed into clinical trials for cure of non-malignant disorders including aplastic anemia and thalassemia/sickle cell disease by parental mismatched BMT.
In the area of cancer, the Pillai group has patented the first rigorous and GMP-compatible protocol for expansion of human iNKT cells for immunotherapy. The group is now collaborating with other Sylvester Cancer Center members to develop the first iNKT-chimeric antigen receptor (iNKT-CAR) immunotherapy for high-risk pediatric and potentially also adult cancers.
The group is collaborating with other UM investigators in investigating the role of innate immune effectors in key infectious processes.
These projects are advancing basic understandings and translational developments in transplantation, cancer, and infectious disease.