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Mary L. Disis, MD, FASCO

Helen B. Slonaker Endowed Professor for Cancer Research
Associate Dean for Translational Health Sciences
Professor of Medicine and Adjunct Professor of Pathology and Obstetrics and Gynecology
Member of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
University of Washington School of Medicine
Seattle, Washington

Current Research

Goal: To develop novel strategies to improve outcomes for patients with metastatic triple-negative breast cancer.

Impact: Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is one of the most lethal breast cancer subtypes and once the disease recurs, the development of drug resistance can be rapid. Dr. Disis has developed a specialized vaccine that may synergize with chemotherapy to improve outcomes for patients with advanced TNBC. The vaccine elicits both immunologic and biologic effects on the tumor which results in a “re-sensitization” of the tumor to chemotherapy. 

What’s next: She plans to develop this combination immune-chemotherapy strategy into a Phase II clinical trial to treat patients with metastatic triple negative breast cancer who are becoming resistant to chemotherapy.

Immunotherapy is a promising, but still challenging, treatment approach in breast cancer. While some patients have benefitted, most do not. Dr. Disis has focused her career on improving immunotherapy for cancer patients. Her most recent development is a specialized vaccine that not only stimulates an immune response but also re-sensitizes breast cancer cells to chemotherapy and may prove to be an effective approach for patients with metastatic (stage IV) TNBC.

Full Research Summary

Research area: Identifying ways to boost immune response in breast cancer patients to improve response to chemotherapy. 

Impact: Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is an aggressive form of breast cancer with a high likelihood of recurrence and drug resistance. Dr. Disis and her team are developing new treatment strategies for patients with metastatic TNBC, including combination approaches of immune therapy and chemotherapy. She has developed a unique multi-antigen vaccine, which targets breast cancer stem cells– the cells responsible for drug resistance and metastasis. Her laboratory studies have shown that the STEMVAC vaccine re-sensitizes tumor cells to chemotherapy by inducing both immunologic and biologic effects on the tumor. In the coming year, Dr. Disis will test the efficacy of using the STEMVAC vaccine alone and in combination with chemotherapy. The results of her laboratory studies can be directly translated into a clinical trial to test the combination in treating TNBC patients whose cancer has become resistant to therapy. 

Current investigation: Dr. Disis and her colleagues are conducting laboratory studies to test the treatment combination of chemotherapy and the STEMVAC vaccine with the goal of taking it to clinical trials in patients with advanced TNBC. 

What she’s learned so far: In Phase I clinical trials, the vaccine demonstrated a robust immune response without causing major toxicity. Her team has determined that not only is rapid immunization possible with STEMVAC but the immune response elicited by the vaccine also shuts down tumor promoting pathways. In addition, they determined that delivery of the vaccine over one or two weeks elicits a similar immune response as delivery with more standard schedules (months between vaccines). 

What’s next: The team will continue to conduct studies to characterize the STEMVAC vaccine and determine if the combination of chemotherapy and vaccination is more effective that either alone. Since patients with TNBC who have high levels of tumor infiltrating lymphocytes have a better prognosis than those who have no evidence of these immune cells, they will examine the effect of the vaccine alone and in combination with chemotherapy on levels of tumor infiltrating lymphocytes. The results of their studies will help to inform clinical trials which test the combination of chemotherapy and STEMVAC immunization for the treatment of patients with metastatic TNBC

Biography

Mary L. (Nora) Disis, MD, is the Athena Distinguished Professor of Breast Cancer Research, Associate Dean for Translational Health Sciences in the University of Washington (UW) School of Medicine, Professor of Medicine and Adjunct Professor of Pathology and Obstetrics and Gynecology at UW and a Member of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Her research interest is in the discovery of new molecular immunologic targets in solid tumors for the development of vaccine and cellular therapy for the treatment and prevention of breast cancer. In addition, her group evaluates the use of the immune system to aid in the diagnosis of cancer and develops novel assays and approaches to quantitate and characterize human immunity. Dr. Disis holds a leadership award from the Komen for the Cure Foundation and was recently named as an American Cancer Society Clinical Professor. She is the Editor-in-Chief of JAMA Oncology.  

Grid Researcher Headshot - Disis

BCRF Investigator Since

2016

Donor Recognition

The Ulta Beauty Award

Area(s) of Focus