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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

  • Seeking to advance the use of immunotherapy in breast cancer with combination approaches for patients with recurrent HER2-positive breast cancer.
  • Laboratory studies are ongoing to test an immunotherapy combination to improve response to immunotherapy.
  • These studies may lead to clinical trials of potent immunotherapy combinations for patients with recurrent HER2-positive breast cancer. 

Advancements in immunotherapy have made it a promising treatment approach for some cancers, but as with most other cancer therapies, tumors can outsmart immune-based drug and block their effects. Drs. Emens and Jaffee are testing combination approaches that prevent the tumor from hiding from immune surveillance and make immunotherapy more effective.

Full Research Summary

Cancer immunotherapy is a new treatment approach that enlists the patient's own immune system to fight cancer. Monoclonal antibodies that block the PD-1 immune checkpoint (called checkpoint inhibitors) unleash a robust anti-tumor immunity responses in a broad range of tumors.  

Although some breast cancer patients respond to PD-1 blockade, the majority do not respond. Moreover, most of the trials testing PD-1/PD-L1 modulators in breast cancer have been in the triple negative breast cancer subtype. 

As yet, there has been little efficacy reported of checkpoint inhibitors for HER2-positive breast cancer. This may be due to a lack of specialized immune cells (called T cells) at the tumor sites. Strategies that induce T cells and counter the tumor's immunosuppressive properties will be required for immunotherapy to work in most breast cancer patients. 

In previous work, Drs. Emens and Jaffee showed that adding PD-1 pathway blockade plus an additional immune-based treatment can increase T cell production and increases tumor-free survival in laboratory models of HER2-positive breast cancer. However, this therapy also activates pathways that shut down the anti-tumor response. They have identified two potential targets to counter this effect. Over the next year, they will focus on targeting the immunosuppressive molecules to increase the efficacy of combination immunotherapy.

They hope to develop a highly active immunotherapy regimen that will translate into a clinical trial testing the most potent combination immunotherapy regimen in patients with recurrent HER2+ breast cancer


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