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Joan S. Brugge, PhD

Louise Foote Pfeiffer Professor of Cell Biology
Director, Ludwig Center at Harvard
Harvard Medical School
Boston, Massachusetts
Member, BCRF Scientific Advisory Board

Current Research

Goal: To understand the origins and progression of triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC).

Impact: Using a platform she developed, Dr. Brugge is investigating the high degree of variation in tumor cells within triple-negative breast cancers (TNBC). Understanding the consequences of these differences on the behavior of tumor cells is fundamental to the development of new treatment options for patients who have this type of aggressive breast cancer.

What’s next: She and her team have identified potential cellular mechanisms responsible for drug resistance. They will now begin testing strategies to target these pathways to determine changes in drug response in their laboratory models. 

Resistance to therapy is a challenge when treating all types of breast cancers, but particularly so in TNBC. Tumor cells that survive therapy continue to grow and contribute to relapse and metastasis. Dr. Brugge is conducting studies aimed at identifying how the diverse cell types within an individual tumor respond to drugs so that more effective treatments can be developed to prevent drug resistance and metastasis in patients with TNBC.

Full Research Summary

Research goal: To identify pathways of drug resistance in triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) and develop strategies to overcome them to achieve better outcomes for patients with this aggressive disease. 

Impact: One of the biggest challenges in treating cancer is the high degree of variation in the tumor cells within a single tumor— a common tumor characteristic called intratumor heterogeneity. The consequences of this heterogeneity on tumor behavior is not well understood but is believed to drive resistance to cancer therapies. Dr. Brugge aims to identify the molecular pathways within individual tumor cells responsible for drug resistance in triple-negative breast tumors. These studies will inform the development of drug combinations that more effectively kill residual drug-resistant tumor cells that are responsible for cancer relapse, thereby improving outcomes for patients with triple-negative breast cancer. 

Current investigation: Using a platform developed in her lab, Dr. Brugge and her team are screening over 100 anti-cancer compounds in TNBC-derived tumor cells. Their goal is to determine the variation in drug sensitivity in individual cells to identify the mechanisms responsible for drug resistance and inform new treatment strategies.

What she’s learned so far: Using a laboratory test her team developed, Dr. Brugge has been able to study the intertumoral heterogeneity of TNBC tumors and has identified a mechanism whereby tumor cells escape growth controls to promote tumor formation. 

What’s next: in the coming year, her team will begin laboratory testing of strategies to overcome the tumor promoting programs and improved drug sensitivity in her TNBC model system.


Dr. Brugge is Co-Director of the Ludwig Center at Harvard Medical School. A graduate of Northwestern University, she did graduate work at the Baylor College of Medicine, completing her PhD in 1975, followed by postdoctoral training at the University of Colorado with Dr. Raymond Erikson. Dr. Brugge has held full professorships at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and the University of Pennsylvania, where she was also named an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. From 1992-1997 Dr. Brugge was Scientific Director of the biotechnology company ARIAD. She joined Harvard in 1997 as Professor of Cell Biology, was Chair of Cell Biology from 2004 - 2014, and became Co-Director of the Ludwig Center at Harvard in 2014.

Dr. Brugge’s awards include an NIH Merit Award, an American Cancer Society Research Professorship and the Senior Career Recognition Award from the American Society of Cell Biology.  She is the recipient of BCRF's 2015 Jill Rose Award for research excellence.  She has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine.

Dr. Brugge is investigating the mechanisms involved in breast cancer initiation and progression. Her laboratory has utilized three dimensional cultures of normal breast cells and breast tumor cells to recapitulate the organization of cells in their natural context and provide important insights relating to the mechanisms whereby genes that are altered in breast cancer contribute to tumor formation and progression as well as those that mediate resistance to cancer therapies.

Grid Researcher Headshot - Brugge J

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Bloomingdale's Award

Area(s) of Focus