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David Cortez, PhD

Ingram Professor of Cancer Research
Professor of Biochemistry
Vanderbilt University School of Medicine
Nashville, Tennessee

Current Research

  • Seeking new strategies to improve outcomes for patients with triple negative breast cancer.
  • Laboratory studies are conducted to determine the mechanism of resistance to a promising new therapy.
  • These studies are paving the way to new strategies that could improve outcomes for patients with triple negative breast cancer.

The first targeted therapy for BRCA-mutation associated cancers was recently approved to treat certain metastatic breast cancers. This represents a major breakthrough in the treatment of breast cancers with harmful BRCA mutations. Unfortunately, not all patients benefit due to tumor resistance to the therapy. Dr. Cortez is conducting studies to develop strategies to overcome resistance to this therapy, so more patients can benefit.

Full Research Summary

Triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) accounts for approximately 25 percent of breast cancer deaths. No targeted therapies are available for this disease, and thus a critical need persists to develop better therapeutic options.

There is considerable overlap in the biology of triple negative breast cancers with cancers caused by defects in the breast cancer susceptibility genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2. The majority of breast cancers with mutated BRCA genes are in fact triple negative. 

The first targeted therapy for BRCA1/2 cancers (olaparib, trade name Lymparza®) is now approved for the treatment of HER2-negative metastatic breast cancers that harbor mutations in BRCA1/2. This represents a major advance for this subset of cancer patients since Lynparza® can be effective even after patients fail cytotoxic chemotherapy. Lynparza® also has low toxicity and is generally well tolerated. Unfortunately, as with most therapies, resistance can arise.

In the last year, Dr. Cortez’s group discovered a new DNA repair gene that works in the BRCA1/2 pathway. This gene may be an important determinant of therapeutic responses in breast cancer patients with an inherited BRCA mutation. They are now working to test this concept in overcoming therapy resistance.

The overall goal of this work is to generate information that can be translated into the clinic to improve outcomes for TNBC patients.


Dr. Cortez graduated summa cum laude from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana with Highest Honors in Biology and Biochemistry. He received his doctorate in 1997 in Molecular Cancer Biology from Duke University. After postdoctoral training as a Jane Coffin Childs Fellow at the Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Cortez joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 2002. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 2007 and Professor of Biochemistry and Ingram Professor of Cancer Research in 2009. Dr. Cortez is Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Biochemistry, and a member of the Editorial Boards of the journals Cell Reports, Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Journal of Biochemistry. He became co-leader of the Genome Maintenance Program in the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center upon its inception in 2007.

Dr. Cortez’s research focuses on the mechanisms that maintain genome integrity. His research has been published in journals including Science, Genes and Development, Cell Reports, Molecular and Cellular Biology, Journal of Biological Chemistry, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Cancer Research, and Molecular Cell. He has received several awards recognizing his scientific achievements including the Howard Temin Award from the National Cancer Institute, the Wilson S. Stone Memorial Award, and a Pew Scholar Award from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Grid Reasercher Headshot - Cortez David

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Ulta Beauty Award

Area(s) of Focus