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Adrian Lee, PhD

Pittsburgh Foundation Chair and Director, Institute for Precision Medicine
Professor, Pharmacology & Chemical Biology, and Human Genetics
UPMC Hillman Cancer Center and
Magee Women’s Research Institute
University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Current Research

Goal: To improve response to targeted therapies by identifying which patients are most likely to respond to them.

Impact: Dr. Lee is pursuing biomarkers that could help determine which breast cancer patients may benefit from a class of anti-cancer drugs called IGF1R inhibitors. His work could lead to better outcomes for those who have triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) and invasive lobular cancer (ILC)—subtypes more likely to require IGF1R for growth.

What’s next: He will continue to investigate E-cadherin, an important protein in the tissue structure that is absent in ILC and some TNBC. Dr. Lee’s studies suggest that E-cadherin may be a biomarker of response to anti-IGF1R inhibitors.

Targeted drugs are designed to target a protein or system in cancer cells that drive its growth, allowing for the destruction of cancer cells while sparing normal cells. While many of these drugs show promise in laboratory studies, they often fail in clinical trials. One reason for this is the lack of a biomarker to identify which patients are mostly likely to benefit from the drug. Dr. Lee is searching for biomarkers that would identify patients who would respond to a therapy that targets a growth factor protein called IGF1R, which could benefit patients with triple-negative and invasive lobular breast cancers.  

Full Research Summary

Research area: Determining which patients will benefit from treatments that target a growth-regulating protein called insulin-like growth factor 1 receptor (IGF1R) in breast cancer.

Impact: IGF1R is known to play a role in the formation and growth of several types of cancer, including breast cancer and may be particularly important for the growth of invasive lobular and triple negative breast cancers. Drugs that inhibit IGF1R have been tested in clinical trials, but few patients have had any benefit. Dr. Lee is investigating biomarkers to aid selection of patients for IGFR1-inhibitor therapy, especially those with invasive lobular cancer (ILC) and certain triple negative breast cancers (TNBCs).

Current investigation: Dr. Lee and his team have been focusing on a protein called E-cadherin, which is important in maintaining tissue structure, particularly cell-to-cell stickiness. Their data suggest that breast cancers with low expression of E-cadherin have increased sensitivity to insulin-like growth factor signaling, suggesting that IGF1R inhibitors may be an effective treatment. Thus, E-cadherin could possibly serve as a biomarker of response to these drugs.

What he’s learned so far: Work from Dr. Lee’s lab shows that ILC cell lines are especially responsive to IGF1R inhibitors. 

What’s next: He and his colleagues will investigate this finding further and are investigating other therapeutic targets in order to develop pre-clinical data that support a biomarker-directed clinical trial with IGF1R inhibitors.


Dr. Lee is the Pittsburgh Foundation Chair and Director of the Institute for Precision Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC. He is Professor of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology, and Professor of Human Genetics, at UPM Hillman Cancer Center and Magee Women’s Research Institute. Dr. Lee received his B.Sc. and PhD in England, and came to San Antonio for his postdoctoral studies. He was subsequently recruited to Baylor College of Medicine and now the University of Pittsburgh.

The goal of Dr. Lee’s laboratory is to translate basic cell and molecular research findings into the understanding and treatment of breast cancer. Dr Lee serves on numerous other national peer-review committees, and is on the Scientific Advisory Council for Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Play for P.I.N.K. Award

Area(s) of Focus