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Justin M. Balko, PharmD PhD

Vanderbilt University Medical Center
Nashville, Tennessee

Titles and Affiliations

Ingram Associate Professor for Cancer Research
Associate Professor of Medicine and Pathology, Microbiology & Immunology
Co-Leader Breast Cancer Research Program
Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center

Research area

Developing methods to identify which patients would benefit from immunotherapy.


Triple-negative breast cancers (TNBCs) lack estrogen and progesterone receptors and the HER2 protein, three factors that are usual targets of therapy. Therefore, it is an aggressive subtype of breast cancer with limited treatment options. Patients with TNBC are typically treated with chemotherapy but, in the last few years, immunotherapy in combination with chemotherapy has achieved some success. Immunotherapy helps a patient’s own immune system fight cancer and can be very effective, but only in about 15 percent of patients with TNBC. The use of immunotherapy drugs is complicated by their potentially life-long side effects including those similar to autoimmune disorders. Since many patients would completely respond to chemotherapy alone, these side-effects could be avoided if doctors could select patients most likely to benefit. Dr. Balko and his team are testing a method that may do this and hope its use will help improve and personalize treatment in a population of patients that currently have limited options.

What’s next

Utilizing tumor tissue obtained from participants in an ongoing clinical trial, they will determine the efficacy of this test and optimize its use. They hope that these studies will provide a new way to identify patients that will benefit from immunotherapy and that this technique can be tested in larger clinical trials. They also expect to accumulate a wealth of tumor data that can be analyzed and potentially reveal new effective treatments or biomarkers to improve outcomes for patients with aggressive TNBC.


Justin M. Balko, PharmD, PhD is currently an Ingram Associate Professor of Cancer Research and Associate Professor of Medicine and Pathology, Microbiology, and Immunology, and co-leads the VICC Breast Cancer Research Program. He obtained his Doctorate in Pharmacy from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 2004. After completion of his PhD in the Clinical and Experimental Therapeutics track of the Pharmaceutical Sciences program at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, KY, he joined the laboratory of Carlos L. Arteaga, MD, in 2009 as a postdoctoral research fellow.

He has published over 100 peer reviewed contributions in the field of molecular oncology and translational oncology research, primarily in the breast cancer field. His laboratory focuses on identifying biomarkers and mechanisms of drug sensitivity or resistance in breast cancer and other tumor types, ways to enhance response rates to immunotherapy by targeting cancer-specific signals of immune suppression, and the biological mechanisms of immune-related adverse events to immunotherapies. His laboratory receives or has received funding from the NIH/NCI, the Department of Defense, The IBC Network Foundation, the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research, The Mary Kay Foundation, Stand Up 2 Cancer/AACR, and Susan G. Komen.

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Delta Air Lines Award