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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

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

Impact: Immunotherapy utilizes the power of a patient’s immune system and offers new promise for the treatment of some breast cancers. Although newer immune therapies that target the PD-1/PD-L1 pathway 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 do not—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 metastasized to determine whether the profile of immune markers is different at different sites of metastasis. The results of their studies will provide valuable insights to inform treatment decisions and optimize the use of immunotherapy for treating metastatic breast cancer patients. 

Progress Thus Far: Previous clinical trial results showed that targeting PD-1/PD-L1 could provide durable clinical responses in small numbers of patients  with advanced breast cancer. However, it remains unclear how immune biomarkers change as the disease progresses Therefore, the team has collected a series of matched primary and metastatic breast cancer samples to determine how the immune environment evolves during progression from the primary breast cancer to different sites of metastases. 

What’s Next: Drs. Emens and Jaffee will continue to analyze several immune biomarkers (including PD-1/PDL-1) in this set of matched primary and metastatic breast tumors. By comparing these samples, they hope to gain a deeper understanding of how the expression of immune biomarkers varies with disease progression or correlates to breast cancer metastases at different sites. 

Full Research Summary

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

Impact: Immunotherapy utilizes the power of a patient’s immune system and offers new promise for the treatment of some breast cancers. Although newer immune therapies that target the PD-1/PD-L1 pathway 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 do not—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 metastasized to determine whether the profile of immune markers is different at different sites of metastasis. The results of their studies will provide valuable insights to inform treatment decisions and optimize the use of immunotherapy for treating metastatic breast cancer patients.

Progress Thus Far: Early trials showed that targeting PD-1/PD-L1 could result in durable clinical responses in small numbers of advanced breast cancer patients. However, it remains unclear how immune biomarkers vary with disease spread to different organs of the body. Therefore, the team has collected a series of primary breast cancer samples and matched metastases to determine how the immune environment differs from the primary tumor and different sites of metastases.

What’s Next: Drs. Emens and Jaffee will continue to analyze several immune biomarkers (including PD-1/PDL-1) in this set of matched primary and metastatic breast tumors. By comparing these samples, they hope to gain a deeper understanding of how the expression of immune biomarkers varies with disease progression or correlates to breast cancer metastases at different sites.

Biography

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

2014

Donor Recognition

The Clinique Award