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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.
     
  • Laboratory studies are conducted to “supercharge” immune cells and sensitize breast cancer cells to the killing effects of chemotherapy.
     
  • Boosting the patient’s immune system could dramatically improve response to chemotherapy for patients with advanced breast cancer.

Harnessing the immune system to fight cancer is a promising but challenging approach to cancer therapy. T-cells are potent anti-cancer immune cells and they can predict better outcome when present in the tumor. For patients with few T- cells, Dr. Disis is using a technique to boost T-cell numbers and increase sensitivity of tumors to chemotherapy.

Full Research Summary

The immune system plays an important role in cancer therapy. The presence of immune cells called T lymphocytes (T cells) in the tumor is often a favorable indication for successful therapy. Most breast cancers, however, have few T cells. 

An approach to overcome low level immunity is called adoptive T-cell therapy in which tumor-specific T cells are grown in the laboratory and infused back into the patient, boosting the patient’s immune system with cells that will respond to their tumor. Many forms of adoptive T-cell therapy exist. The strategy used by Dr. Disis' lab stimulates the patient's T cells with biological chemicals called cytokines that turn 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. 

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. The team has shown that these supercharged T cells sensitize breast cancer cells to the killing effects of chemotherapy. Their next step is to determine if the method is reproducible and feasible in a clinical setting.

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.  

BCRF Investigator Since

2016

Donor Recognition

The Ulta Beauty Award

Area(s) of Focus