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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

  • Seeking to understand the origins and progression of triple negative breast cancer.
  • Laboratory studies are conducted to delineate drug sensitivities in individual tumor cells.
  • This work will lead to new treatment options for patients with triple negative breast cancer.

Resistance to anti-cancer therapies is a challenge in all types of breast cancers, but particularly so in triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). Cells that survive therapy continue to grow and may form a new tumor. Dr. Brugge is conducting laboratory studies aimed at identifying the different cell types and their responsiveness to drugs so that more effective treatments can be developed to prevent drug resistance and metastasis. 

Full Research Summary

Tumors evolve through expansion of individual tumor cells, generating both genetic and non-genetic changes that select for the most 'fit' cells. This process results in considerable cellular diversity within tumors that can profoundly impact disease progression and drug resistance, one of the most significant challenges in cancer treatment.

Dr. Brugge has developed a platform to characterize subpopulations of tumor cells that are resistant to cancer drugs and thus drive tumor progression. 

In the last year, her team identified a neuronal protein that plays a role in protecting tumor cells from chemotherapy, which could lead to development of more efficacious cancer therapies. 

Over the next year they plan to test drug combinations that effectively kill the diverse populations of cancer cells within an individual tumor, thus reducing the chance for recurrence or metastasis.

These studies promise to provide valuable information on the dynamics of tumor cell populations that will ultimately help guide the development of new therapies for breast cancer patients.


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