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Justin Milner, PhD, is a UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center member who studies the development of new approaches for enhancing the efficacy of cancer immunotherapies.

Assistant Professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology
UNC-Chapel Hill

Area of Interest

Leveraging the protective capacity of the immune system to eliminate malignant cells has emerged as an exciting and promising strategy for the treatment of cancer. The overall focus of our lab is to develop new approaches for enhancing the efficacy of cancer immunotherapies. Promising modalities in the immuno-oncology landscape include checkpoint blockade, adoptive cell therapy, cancer vaccines, cytokine therapies, and oncolytic viruses. CD8 T lymphocytes are central mediators of cancer immunity, and as such, nearly all effective immunotherapies elicit tumor regression through promoting robust anti-tumor CD8 T-cell responses. However, inhibitory features of the immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment often prevent sustained T-cell activity and efficient elimination of malignant cells, contributing to variable immunotherapy responsiveness and treatment resistance. The primary goal of our research is to delineate the complex signals regulating tumor-specific CD8 T-cell fate, heterogeneity, persistence, and function in cancer. We utilize cutting-edge genetic and molecular approaches to identify transcription factors and chromatin modifiers controlling CD8 T-cell differentiation within tumors and ultimately seek to leverage this insight to tailor the activity of T-cells for enhanced immunotherapy success.

Our group also studies the molecular signals controlling CD8 T-cell differentiation and function during infection. Memory CD8 T-cells are central mediators of long-lived immunity and provide critical protection against intracellular pathogens. Memory CD8 T-cells can be broadly segregated into recirculating memory cells predominantly found in the blood and lymphoid tissues as well as tissue-resident memory cells, which are primarily localized to non-lymphoid sites. Given the unique attributes of memory T-cells, including specificity, durability, and rapid effector activity, leveraging this population of cells is a key objective of vaccines. We are interested in identifying fate-specifying signals controlling memory T-cell differentiation and heterogeneity, with a particular focus on tissue-resident memory cells.

Find publications on PubMed

Awards and Honors

  • Lung Cancer Initiative Career Development Award
  • Mary Kay Ash Award
  • Hirschberg Foundation Seed Award (with John Morris)
  • V Foundation Scholar Award
  • UNC Pancreatic Cancer Spore Career Enrichment Award
  • UNC Lineberger Innovation Award
  • UNC Computational Medicine Pilot Award (with Natalie Stanley) –
  • American Association of Immunologists Intersect Award –
  • NC CGIBD Pilot Award
  • NIH NCI K99/R00
Headshot of Justin Milner