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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 in breast cancer with combination approaches for patients with recurrent HER2-positive breast cancer.

Impact: Drs. Emens and Jaffee are pursuing ways to enhance the response of immunotherapy so that more patients can benefit from it.

What’s next: The team will test whether a combination immunotherapy approach will improve response to immunotherapy in HER2-positive breast cancer.

Immunotherapy is a promising treatment for breast cancer, but as with other anti-cancer therapies, tumors are able to evade these drugs and block their effects. Drs. Emens and Jaffee are focused on developing immunotherapy combinations that convert non-responding tumors to responders, enhance responses that do occur, and overcome acquired resistance to immunotherapy.

Full Research Summary

Research goal: Developing potent immunotherapy combinations for patients with recurrent HER2-positive breast cancer.

Impact: While some breast cancer patients respond to a type of immunotherapy called checkpoint inhibitors, these drugs have not been very effective in treating patients with HER2-positive breast cancer. Drs. Emens and Jaffee have identified additional checkpoint targets and are investigating combination immunotherapy treatments that induce T cells and counter the tumor’s immunosuppressive properties so that more patients will be able to benefit from immunotherapy.

Current investigation: The team has been conducting laboratory studies of the combination of anti-PD-L1 immunotherapy agent atezolizumab with the chemotherapy drug nab-paclitaxel in laboratory models of advanced HER2-positive breast cancer. The same treatment combination was recently FDA-approved for the treatment of advanced triple negative breast cancer. This year they are also studying another immune target called TIM-3, which they believe is blocking the effect of anti-PD-L1 treatment. They will measure protein levels of TIM-3 in human tumors as well as laboratory models and begin testing combination approaches to target TIM-3 and PD-L1.

What they’ve learned so far: Drs. Emens and Jaffee found that when the checkpoint protein, PD-L1 was blocked in their laboratory models of HER2-positive breast cancer, a counter effect occurred to decrease the anti-PD-L1 treatment. They found that another checkpoint protein, called TIM-3 may be blocking the cancer killing ability of T-cells activated by the PD-L1 therapy.

What’s next: The team will continue studying the presence of TIM-3 in tumors and test whether targeting TIM-3 in addition to PD-L1 results in more effective anti-tumor response.


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

Area(s) of Focus