Susan Kaech

Professor and Director

NOMIS Center for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis


Salk Institute for Biological Studies - Susan Kaech

Current Research

The Problem

Every time we encounter a new virus or bacteria, our immune system preserves a memory of the invader so that it can protect us faster the next time we're exposed to it. In the case of viruses, immune cells called T cells are activated by that first encounter and begin to divide and develop into subtypes, some of which (known as memory T cells) are responsible for remembering that specific virus. In fact, vaccines take advantage of this mechanism to help us develop long-term immunity to viral diseases like polio or measles. But how exactly this process works—and why it sometimes fails—isn't fully understood.

The Approach

Susan Kaech aims to understand how T cells, cells involved in the immune response, are produced during infection and vaccination, and how they develop into long-lived memory T cells that can provide long-lasting immunity. Her lab leads the way in using genetic and molecular tools to identify the genes and signaling molecules involved in generating diverse types of memory T cells during acute and chronic viral infections. She also is uncovering how these processes are subverted in cancer and how T cells become suppressed and fail to protect against cancer. Her lab opened up a new area of cancer research by discovering that tumor cells can evade anti-tumor immunity by subverting the metabolism of immune cells in the local environment. Her lab is using this knowledge to understand the metabolic landscape of tumors and how this regulates anti-tumor immunity. Her lab is also creating ‘metabolically superior’ designer T cells that can function better in tumors to develop more robust, specific and longer-lasting immunotherapies.

The Innovations and Discoveries

Kaech discovered the cellular precursors of long-lived memory CD8 T cells that form following viral infection in mice, based on increased expression of a gene called IL-7, which is required both for T cell development into mature memory cells and for their long-term survival.

Kaech used a technique called gene expression profiling to compile a database of clusters of genes that are associated with different T cell types, which her lab made available for use by other researchers.

Kaech, in the course of investigating models of melanoma and lung cancer in mice, found that stimulating a receptor on T cells called CD40 suppressed tumor growth.

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BS, Cellular and Molecular Biology, University of Washington
PhD, Developmental Biology, Stanford University

Awards & Honors

  • 2009 Howard Hughes Early Career Scientist
  • 2007 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE)
  • 2007 American Asthma Foundation Investigator
  • 2005 Cancer Research Institute Investigator Award
  • 2005 Edward Mallinckrodt Jr. Foundation Award
  • 2003 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award in the Biosciences
  • 1999 Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell Cancer Research Fellowship
  • 1993 National Science Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship