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Kornelia Polyak, MD, PhD

Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School
Principal Faculty, Harvard Stem Cell Institute
Co-Leader, Dana-Farber Harvard Cancer Center, Cancer Cell Biology Program
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard Medical School
Boston, Massachusetts

Current Research

Goal: To understand the role the immune system plays in the evolution of breast tumors.

Impact: Dr. Polyak is investigating how cellular and molecular changes that occur in ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)—a non-invasive subtype of breast cancer—allow cancer cells to become invasive. Her work may inform the development of new immunotherapy drugs and reveal biomarkers that could be used to identify which DCIS may progress to invasive disease.

What’s next: She and her team will continue to explore why pre-invasive tumors progress in some cases and what role the immune system plays in this process.

The immune system plays a critical role in tumor growth by attacking cancer cells with tumor-infiltrating leukocytes (white blood cells). Cancer cells that survive this immune attack can become invasive and metastatic; this process is termed immune escape. Dr. Polyak’s work has shown that immune cells lose their cancer-killing capacity as the tumor progresses. Her research will provide invaluable information on how advanced stage tumors escape immune surveillance.

Full Research Summary

Research area: Understanding the timing and underlying mechanism by which cancer cells escape the immune system to become invasive and metastatic.

Impact: The immune system plays a critical role in tumor initiation and progression by attacking cancer cells with tumor-infiltrating leukocytes (white blood cells). Cancer cells that survive this immune attack can become invasive and metastatic; this process is termed immune escape. Dr. Polyak has been analyzing the immune cells in normal breast tissue and breast tumors to assess when and how tumor cells escape immune surveillance. The results of these studies can guide the design of more effective immunotherapies for the eradication of both early and late-stage breast cancers.

Current investigation: Dr. Polyak’s team is conducting studies to determine the role of the immune system in the transition from the earliest form of cancer (DCIS) to invasive carcinoma (IDC). 

What she’s learned so far: Her team has found that the transition from the earliest form of breast cancer (DCIS) to invasive carcinoma (IDC) is a key step in immune escape in breast cancer. Accompanying this progression is a decline in activated immune cells. Her laboratory studies suggest that activating the immune system can prevent breast tumor progression and even induces regression in some early-stage tumors. 

What’s next: Dr. Polyak will continue to characterize the cellular and molecular changes in DCIS that may play a role in immune evasion. In particular, her team will focus on myoepithelial cells which line the milk ducts and may prevent immune cell infiltration and interaction with cancer cells. In addition, they will examine how the immune status of the patient may influence the immune microenvironment of the tumor and the risk of tumor progression. The results of these investigations will identify markers to predict which DCIS are likely to progress to invasive disease, as well as which invasive tumors are likely to respond to immunotherapy. 


Kornelia Polyak, MD, PhD, is a Professor of Medicine at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School and is an internationally recognized leader of the breast cancer research field. Dr. Polyak’s laboratory is dedicated to the molecular analysis of human breast cancer with the goal improving the clinical management of breast cancer patients. Her lab has devoted much effort to develop new ways to study tumors as a whole and to apply interdisciplinary approaches. Using these methods Dr. Polyak’s lab has been at the forefront of studies analyzing purified cell populations from normal and neoplastic human breast tissue at genomic scale and in situ at single cell level and to apply mathematical and ecological models for the better understanding of breast tumor evolution. She has also been successful with the clinical translation of her findings including the testing of efficacy of JAK2 and BET bromodomain inhibitors for the treatment of triple-negative breast cancer in clinical trials. Dr. Polyak have received numerous awards including the Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research in 2011, the 2012 AACR Outstanding Investigator Award for Breast Cancer Research, and the Rosalind Franklin Award in 2016. She is also a 2015 recipient of the NCI Outstanding Investigator award.

Grid Researcher Headshot - Polyak Kornelia

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Ulta Beauty Award