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Mary L. Disis, MD, FASCO

Athena Distinguished Professor of Breast 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

  • Seeking to develop novel strategies to improve outcomes for patients with metastatic breast cancer that no longer responds to traditional therapy. 

  • Laboratory studies are conducted to test a method to “supercharge” immune cells and sensitize breast cancer cells to the killing effects of chemotherapy. 

  • Boosting the patient immune system could dramatically improve response to chemotherapy for patients with advanced breast cancer.

The immune system plays an important role in cancer therapy. Immune cells called T lymphocytes (T cells) impact breast cancer growth when found in high numbers in the tumor.  Most breast cancers, however, have few T-cells. 

An approach to overcome low level immunity is called “adoptive T-cell therapy." This is the generation of tumor-specific T-cells in the laboratory and infusion of those cells back into the patient replacing the patient’s immune system with one that will respond to their tumor. 

There are many forms of adoptive T-cell therapy and the strategy used by Dr. Disis's lab stimulates the patient's T-cell with substances called cytokines turning the T-cells into highly activated Type I, T-helper cells. Clinical trials have shown that this method results in both partial responses and stabilization of disease in patients with metastatic breast cancer that has been resistant to treatment. 

Dr. Disis has developed a method to “supercharge” these T cells against the cancer by making them secrete many different immune system molecules that help kill cancer, making them “polyfunctional”. In the last year, they showed that polyfunctional T-cells up-regulate proteins in the tumor designed to reduce inflammation and sensitizes breast cancer cells to the killing effects of chemotherapy. 

In the coming year, they hope to show that giving tumor specific T-cells concurrently with chemotherapy results in more potent anti-tumor effect than either treatment alone. The goal of this study is to test the approach in a clinical trial.

Bio

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.  

BCRF Investigator Since

2016

Donor Recognition

The ULTA Beauty Award

Area(s) of Focus