John B. Sunwoo, MD
Edward C. and Amy H. Sewall Professor in the School of Medicine and Professor, by courtesy, of Dermatology


Dr. Sunwoo was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. He received his undergraduate degree from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and his medical degree from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He completed his training in Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at Washington University. Dr. Sunwoo has been at Stanford University since 2008, and his clinical focus is on the surgical management of head and neck cancer, specifically focusing on melanoma and neoplasms of the thyroid and parathyroid glands. He is a member of the Pigmented Lesions and Melanoma Clinic and the Melanoma Working Group at Stanford. He is also the co-founder of the Stanford Thyroid and Parathyroid Tumor Board. In addition to his clinical work, Dr. Sunwoo is the Director of Head and Neck Cancer Research at Stanford University and the principal investigator of an NIH-funded laboratory in the Stanford Cancer Institute. His research is focused on three primary areas: (1) the immune response to cancer, particularly a tumorigenic population of cells within malignancies called cancer stem cells; (2) the biology and developmental programs of a special lymphocyte population involved in innate immunity called natural killer (NK) cells; and (3) intra-tumor and inter-tumor heterogeneity in head and neck cancer.


  • Targeting KDM2A Enhances T Cell Infiltration in NSD1-Deficient Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma. Cancer research Chen, C., Shin, J. H., Fang, Z., Brennan, K., Horowitz, N. B., Pfaff, K. L., Welsh, E. L., Rodig, S. J., Gevaert, O., Gozani, O., Uppaluri, R., Sunwoo, J. B. 2023


    In head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC), a significant proportion of tumors have inactivating mutations in the histone methyltransferase NSD1. In these tumors, NSD1 inactivation is a driver of T cell exclusion from the tumor microenvironment (TME). A better understanding of the NSD1-mediated mechanism regulating infiltration of T cells into the TME could help identify approaches to overcome immununosuppression. Here, we demonstrated that NSD1 inactivation results in lower levels of H3K36 di-methylation and higher levels of H3K27 tri-methylation, the latter being a known repressive histone mark enriched on the promoters of key T cell chemokines CXCL9 and CXCL10. HNSCC with NSD1 mutations had lower levels of these chemokines and lacked responses to PD-1 immune checkpoint blockade. Inhibition of KDM2A, the primary lysine demethylase that is selective for H3K36, reversed the altered histone marks induced by NSD1 loss and restored T cell infiltration into the TME. Importantly, KDM2A suppression decreased growth of NSD1-deficient tumors in immunocompetent, but not in immunodeficient, mice. Together, these data indicate that KDM2A is an immunotherapeutic target for overcoming immune exclusion in HNSCC.

    View details for DOI 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-22-3114

    View details for PubMedID 37311054

  • 7-UP: Generating in silico CODEX from a small set of immunofluorescence markers. PNAS nexus Wu, E., Trevino, A. E., Wu, Z., Swanson, K., Kim, H. J., D'Angio, H. B., Preska, R., Chiou, A. E., Charville, G. W., Dalerba, P., Duvvuri, U., Colevas, A. D., Levi, J., Bedi, N., Chang, S., Sunwoo, J., Egloff, A. M., Uppaluri, R., Mayer, A. T., Zou, J. 2023; 2 (6): pgad171


    Multiplex immunofluorescence (mIF) assays multiple protein biomarkers on a single tissue section. Recently, high-plex CODEX (co-detection by indexing) systems enable simultaneous imaging of 40+ protein biomarkers, unlocking more detailed molecular phenotyping, leading to richer insights into cellular interactions and disease. However, high-plex data can be slower and more costly to collect, limiting its applications, especially in clinical settings. We propose a machine learning framework, 7-UP, that can computationally generate in silico 40-plex CODEX at single-cell resolution from a standard 7-plex mIF panel by leveraging cellular morphology. We demonstrate the usefulness of the imputed biomarkers in accurately classifying cell types and predicting patient survival outcomes. Furthermore, 7-UP's imputations generalize well across samples from different clinical sites and cancer types. 7-UP opens the possibility of in silico CODEX, making insights from high-plex mIF more widely available.

    View details for DOI 10.1093/pnasnexus/pgad171

    View details for PubMedID 37275261

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC10236358

  • Identification of cell types in multiplexed in situ images by combining protein expression and spatial information using CELESTA. Nature methods Zhang, W., Li, I., Reticker-Flynn, N. E., Good, Z., Chang, S., Samusik, N., Saumyaa, S., Li, Y., Zhou, X., Liang, R., Kong, C. S., Le, Q., Gentles, A. J., Sunwoo, J. B., Nolan, G. P., Engleman, E. G., Plevritis, S. K. 2022


    Advances in multiplexed in situ imaging are revealing important insights in spatial biology. However, cell type identification remains a major challenge in imaging analysis, with most existing methods involving substantial manual assessment and subjective decisions for thousands of cells. We developed an unsupervised machine learning algorithm, CELESTA, which identifies the cell type of each cell, individually, using the cell's marker expression profile and, when needed, its spatial information. We demonstrate the performance of CELESTA on multiplexed immunofluorescence images of colorectal cancer and head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). Using the cell types identified by CELESTA, we identify tissue architecture associated with lymph node metastasis in HNSCC, and validate our findings in an independent cohort. By coupling our spatial analysis with single-cell RNA-sequencing data on proximal sections of the same specimens, we identify cell-cell crosstalk associated with lymph node metastasis, demonstrating the power of CELESTA to facilitate identification of clinically relevant interactions.

    View details for DOI 10.1038/s41592-022-01498-z

    View details for PubMedID 35654951

  • Emerging NK cell therapies for cancer and the promise of next generation engineering of iPSC-derived NK cells. Journal for immunotherapy of cancer Maddineni, S., Silberstein, J. L., Sunwoo, J. B. 2022; 10 (5)


    Adoptive cell therapy is a rapidly advancing approach to cancer immunotherapy that seeks to facilitate antitumor responses by introducing potent effector cells into the tumor microenvironment. Expanded autologous T cells, particularly T cells with engineered T cell receptors (TCR) and chimeric antigen receptor-T cells have had success in various hematologic malignancies but have faced challenges when applied to solid tumors. As a result, other immune subpopulations may provide valuable and orthogonal options for treatment. Natural killer (NK) cells offer the possibility of significant tumor clearance and recruitment of additional immune subpopulations without the need for prior antigen presentation like in T or B cells that could require removal of endogenous antigen specificity mediated via the T cell receptor (TCR and/or the B ecll receptor (BCR). In recent years, NK cells have been demonstrated to be increasingly important players in the immune response against cancer. Here, we review multiple avenues for allogeneic NK cell therapy, including derivation of NK cells from peripheral blood or umbilical cord blood, the NK-92 immortalized cell line, and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). We also describe the potential of engineering iPSC-derived NK cells and the utility of this platform. Finally, we consider the benefits and drawbacks of each approach and discuss recent developments in the manufacturing and genetic or metabolic engineering of NK cells to have robust and prolonged antitumor responses in preclinical and clinical settings.

    View details for DOI 10.1136/jitc-2022-004693

    View details for PubMedID 35580928

  • Lymph node colonization induces tumor-immune tolerance to promote distant metastasis. Cell Reticker-Flynn, N. E., Zhang, W., Belk, J. A., Basto, P. A., Escalante, N. K., Pilarowski, G. O., Bejnood, A., Martins, M. M., Kenkel, J. A., Linde, I. L., Bagchi, S., Yuan, R., Chang, S., Spitzer, M. H., Carmi, Y., Cheng, J., Tolentino, L. L., Choi, O., Wu, N., Kong, C. S., Gentles, A. J., Sunwoo, J. B., Satpathy, A. T., Plevritis, S. K., Engleman, E. G. 2022


    For many solid malignancies, lymph node (LN) involvement represents a harbinger of distant metastatic disease and, therefore, an important prognostic factor. Beyond its utility as a biomarker, whether and how LN metastasis plays an active role in shaping distant metastasis remains an open question. Here, we develop a syngeneic melanoma mouse model of LN metastasis to investigate how tumors spread to LNs and whether LN colonization influences metastasis to distant tissues. We show that an epigenetically instilled tumor-intrinsic interferon response program confers enhanced LN metastatic potential by enabling the evasion of NK cells and promoting LN colonization. LN metastases resist T cell-mediated cytotoxicity, induce antigen-specific regulatory T cells, and generate tumor-specific immune tolerance that subsequently facilitates distant tumor colonization. These effects extend to human cancers and other murine cancer models, implicating a conserved systemic mechanism by which malignancies spread to distant organs.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.cell.2022.04.019

    View details for PubMedID 35525247

  • The microdissected gene expression landscape of nasopharyngeal cancer reveals vulnerabilities in FGF and noncanonical NF-κB signaling. Science advances Tay, J. K., Zhu, C., Shin, J. H., Zhu, S. X., Varma, S., Foley, J. W., Vennam, S., Yip, Y. L., Goh, C. K., Wang, D. Y., Loh, K. S., Tsao, S. W., Le, Q. T., Sunwoo, J. B., West, R. B. 2022; 8 (14): eabh2445


    Nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC) is an Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)-positive epithelial malignancy with an extensive inflammatory infiltrate. Traditional RNA-sequencing techniques uncovered only microenvironment signatures, while the gene expression of the tumor epithelial compartment has remained a mystery. Here, we use Smart-3SEQ to prepare transcriptome-wide gene expression profiles from microdissected NPC tumors, dysplasia, and normal controls. We describe changes in biological pathways across the normal to tumor spectrum and show that fibroblast growth factor (FGF) ligands are overexpressed in NPC tumors, while negative regulators of FGF signaling, including SPRY1, SPRY2, and LGALS3, are down-regulated early in carcinogenesis. Within the NF-κB signaling pathway, the critical noncanonical transcription factors, RELB and NFKB2, are enriched in the majority of NPC tumors. We confirm the responsiveness of EBV-positive NPC cell lines to targeted inhibition of these pathways, reflecting the heterogeneity in NPC patient tumors. Our data comprehensively describe the gene expression landscape of NPC and unravel the mysteries of receptor tyrosine kinase and NF-κB pathways in NPC.

    View details for DOI 10.1126/sciadv.abh2445

    View details for PubMedID 35394843

  • NSD1 mutations deregulate transcription and DNA methylation of bivalent developmental genes in Sotos syndrome. Human molecular genetics Brennan, K., Zheng, H., Fahrner, J. A., Shin, J. H., Gentles, A. J., Schaefer, B., Sunwoo, J. B., Bernstein, J. A., Gevaert, O. 2022


    Sotos syndrome (SS), the most common overgrowth with intellectual disability (OGID) disorder, is caused by inactivating germline mutations of NSD1, which encodes a histone H3 lysine 36 methyltransferase. To understand how NSD1 inactivation deregulates transcription and DNA methylation (DNAm), and to explore how these abnormalities affect human development, we profiled transcription and DNAm in SS patients and healthy control individuals. We identified a transcriptional signature that distinguishes individuals with SS from controls and was also deregulated in NSD1 mutated cancers. Most abnormally expressed genes displayed reduced expression in SS; these downregulated genes consisted mostly of bivalent genes and were enriched for regulators of development and neural synapse function. DNA hypomethylation was strongly enriched within promoters of transcriptionally deregulated genes: Overexpressed genes displayed hypomethylation at their transcription start sites (TSSs) while underexpressed genes featured hypomethylation at polycomb binding sites within their promoter CpG island shores. SS patients featured accelerated molecular aging at the levels of both transcription and DNAm. Overall, these findings indicate that NSD1-deposited H3K36 methylation regulates transcription by directing promoter DNA methylation, partially by repressing polycomb repressive complex 2 (PRC2) activity. These findings could explain the phenotypic similarity of SS to OGID disorders that are caused by mutations in PRC2 complex-encoding genes.

    View details for DOI 10.1093/hmg/ddac026

    View details for PubMedID 35094088

  • High-resolution positron emission microscopy of patient-derived tumor organoids. Nature communications Khan, S., Shin, J. H., Ferri, V., Cheng, N., Noel, J. E., Kuo, C., Sunwoo, J. B., Pratx, G. 2021; 12 (1): 5883


    Tumor organoids offer new opportunities for translational cancer research, but unlike animal models, their broader use is hindered by the lack of clinically relevant imaging endpoints. Here, we present a positron-emission microscopy method for imaging clinical radiotracers in patient-derived tumor organoids with spatial resolution 100-fold better than clinical positron emission tomography (PET). Using this method, we quantify 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose influx to show that patient-derived tumor organoids recapitulate the glycolytic activity of the tumor of origin, and thus, could be used to predict therapeutic response in vitro. Similarly, we measure sodium-iodine symporter activity using 99mTc- pertechnetate and find that the iodine uptake pathway is functionally conserved in organoids derived from thyroid carcinomas. In conclusion, organoids can be imaged using clinical radiotracers, which opens new possibilities for identifying promising drug candidates and radiotracers, personalizing treatment regimens, and incorporating clinical imaging biomarkers in organoid-based co-clinical trials.

    View details for DOI 10.1038/s41467-021-26081-6

    View details for PubMedID 34620852

  • Chromatin accessibility associates with protein-RNA correlation in human cancer. Nature communications Sanghi, A., Gruber, J. J., Metwally, A., Jiang, L., Reynolds, W., Sunwoo, J., Orloff, L., Chang, H. Y., Kasowski, M., Snyder, M. P. 2021; 12 (1): 5732


    Although alterations in chromatin structure are known to exist in tumors, how these alterations relate to molecular phenotypes in cancer remains to be demonstrated. Multi-omics profiling of human tumors can provide insight into how alterations in chromatin structure are propagated through the pathway of gene expression to result in malignant protein expression. We applied multi-omics profiling of chromatin accessibility, RNA abundance, and protein abundance to 36 human thyroid cancer primary tumors, metastases, and patient-match normal tissue. Through quantification of chromatin accessibility associated with active transcription units and global protein expression, we identify a local chromatin structure that is highly correlated with coordinated RNA and protein expression. In particular, we identify enhancers located within gene-bodies as predictive of correlated RNA and protein expression, that is independent of overall transcriptional activity. To demonstrate the generalizability of these findings we also identify similar results in an independent cohort of human breast cancers. Taken together, these analyses suggest that local enhancers, rather than distal enhancers, are likely most predictive of cancer gene expression phenotypes. This allows for identification of potential targets for cancer therapeutic approaches and reinforces the utility of multi-omics profiling as a methodology to understand human disease.

    View details for DOI 10.1038/s41467-021-25872-1

    View details for PubMedID 34593797

  • Landscape of innate lymphoid cells in human head and neck cancer reveals divergent NK cell states in the tumor microenvironment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America Moreno-Nieves, U. Y., Tay, J. K., Saumyaa, S., Horowitz, N. B., Shin, J. H., Mohammad, I. A., Luca, B., Mundy, D. C., Gulati, G. S., Bedi, N., Chang, S., Chen, C., Kaplan, M. J., Rosenthal, E. L., Holsinger, F. C., Divi, V., Baik, F. M., Sirjani, D. B., Gentles, A. J., Newman, A. M., Freud, A. G., Sunwoo, J. B. 2021; 118 (28)


    Natural killer (NK) cells comprise one subset of the innate lymphoid cell (ILC) family. Despite reported antitumor functions of NK cells, their tangible contribution to tumor control in humans remains controversial. This is due to incomplete understanding of the NK cell states within the tumor microenvironment (TME). Here, we demonstrate that peripheral circulating NK cells differentiate down two divergent pathways within the TME, resulting in different end states. One resembles intraepithelial ILC1s (ieILC1) and possesses potent in vivo antitumor activity. The other expresses genes associated with immune hyporesponsiveness and has poor antitumor functional capacity. Interleukin-15 (IL-15) and direct contact between the tumor cells and NK cells are required for the differentiation into CD49a+CD103+ cells, resembling ieILC1s. These data explain the similarity between ieILC1s and tissue-resident NK cells, provide insight into the origin of ieILC1s, and identify the ieILC1-like cell state within the TME to be the NK cell phenotype with the greatest antitumor activity. Because the proportions of the different ILC states vary between tumors, these findings provide a resource for the clinical study of innate immune responses against tumors and the design of novel therapy.

    View details for DOI 10.1073/pnas.2101169118

    View details for PubMedID 34244432