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Leisha Emens, MD, PhD

Co-Leader, Hillman Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy Program
Director of Translational Immunotherapy,
Magee Women’s Cancer Research Center
Professor of Medicine
UPMC Hillman Cancer Center
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Current Research

Goal: To advance the use of immunotherapy for patients with metastatic breast cancer.

Impact: Immunotherapies targeting PD-1/PD-L1 checkpoint signaling have revolutionized the care of some cancers, and improved survival for some patients with breast cancer. Early trials showed that targeting PD-1/PD-L1 could result in durable clinical responses in small numbers of advanced breast cancer patients. Drs. Emens and Jaffee are seeking to improve response to immunotherapy by determining whether levels of PD-L1 vary between the primary and metastatic breast cancer. 

What’s next: The team will characterize the expression of several immune biomarkers in breast cancer metastases to the liver and brain. 
Immunotherapy is a promising treatment for breast cancer, but as with other anti-cancer therapies, tumors can evade these drugs and block their effects. Drs. Emens and Jaffee are determining if the immune environment of breast tumors from different sites of metastases vary. From their studies, we will gain deeper insights that will help to optimize the use of immunotherapy for treating metastatic breast cancer patients. 

Full Research Summary

Research goal: Developing methods to optimize the use of immunotherapy for the treatment of metastatic breast cancer patients. 

Impact: Although newer immune therapies that target PD-1/PD-L1 have improved breast cancer outcomes for some patients with advanced breast cancer, most do not benefit from these agents. Understanding which patients benefit—why some do, and others don’t—is key to their broader clinical benefit. While PD-L1 is a clinically relevant biomarker of immune activation across at least two subtypes of advanced breast cancer, studies showed that the tumors lose their immune reactivity as breast cancer progresses. Dr. Emens and Jaffee are examining the expression of PD-L1 and other immune markers in breast cancers that have spread to the  liver or brain to determine whether the profile of immune markers is different at different sites of metastasis. The results of their studies will help guide treatment with immune checkpoint therapy. 

Current investigation: Drs. Emens and Jaffee will characterize several immune biomarkers, including PD-L1, utilizing tissues obtained from rapid autopsies, as well as liver and brain metastases and normal tissue to gain a deeper understanding of how the expression of immune biomarkers vary depending on disease site. Analysis of these samples will provide valuable information on how immune biomarkers vary with disease progression and how their expression correlates with breast cancer metastases at different sites. 


Leisha Emens is a Professor of Medicine at the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. She serves as Co-Leader of the Hillman Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy Program, and Director of Translational Immunotherapy for the Magee Women's Cancer Research Center. She received her MD-PhD from Baylor College of Medicine and completed her residency training in Internal Medicine at the University of Texas at Southwestern before moving to Johns Hopkins in 1998 for a fellowship in Medical Oncology and Hematology. She was on the faculty at Johns Hopkins from 2001 until 2018, when she moved to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center at University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Emens specializes in cancer immunotherapy, and her research focuses on the development and implementation of breast cancer immunotherapies (including vaccination strategies and immune checkpoint blockade) in combination with traditional anticancer therapies and newer targeted therapies. She is an at-large member of the board of directors for the Society for the Immunotherapy of Cancer, has been a member of the FDA Advisory Committee on Cell, Tissue, and Gene Therapies. She is currently on the editorial boards of the Journal for the Immunotherapy of Cancer and Cancer Research.

Grid Reasercher Headshot - Emens Leishaa

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Clinique Award