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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
Goal: To develop novel strategies to improve outcomes for patients with metastatic breast cancer (MBC).
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 is 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 of a specialized vaccine that not only stimulates an immune response but also re-sensitizes breast cancer cells to chemotherapy 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 is an aggressive form of breast cancer with a high likelihood of recurrence and drug resistance. Dr. Disis has developed a unique vaccine approach targeting breast cancer stem cells – the cells responsible for drug resistance and metastasis. The vaccine elicits both immunologic and biologic effects on the tumor, which re-sensitizes tumor cells to chemotherapy. If her laboratory studies hold true in patients, this approach could help patients with TNBC whose cancer has become resistant to therapy.
Current investigation: Dr. Disis and her colleagues are conducting laboratory studies to test their combination vaccine and chemotherapy approach 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 similar to what would be seen with a viral infection. She further discovered that the immune response elicited by the vaccine also shuts down tumor promoting pathways.
What’s next: The team will determine whether they can create a method that will allow them to rapidly immunize patients with advanced stage IV TNBC with STEMVAC and determine whether STEMVAC, on its own, can induce an anti-tumor response. They will then immunize with STEMVAC concurrently using chemotherapy in a laboratory model of TNBC, and ultimately determine whether the combination of the two approaches is more effective than either one alone.
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
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