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Mary L. (Nora) Disis, MD, FASCO

University of Washington
Seattle, Washington

Titles and Affiliations

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, Clinical Division, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Research area

Identifying ways to boost the immune response in breast cancer patients to improve chemotherapy outcomes.


Metastatic triple-negative breast cancer (mTNBC)—cancer that has spread beyond the breast to other organs of the body—has few treatment options and is therefore very difficult to cure. Dr. Disis and her team are addresssing this challenge by developing combination approaches utilizing immunotherapy and chemotherapy. Her studies using specialized laboratory models suggest that an immune response mounted by specific immune cells (Type I T-cells) synergizes with chemotherapy to successfully inhibit advanced breast cancer growth. Building on this result, Dr. Disis’s team developed a vaccine called STEMVAC which is capable of recognizing mutliple breast cancer antigens. In a Phase I clinical trial, STEMVAC was shown to stimulate high levels of Type I T-cells in breast cancer patients. Dr. Disis and her team have optimized the vaccine and dosing schedule and are now examining the efficacy of using the STEMVAC alone and in combination with chemotherapy in laboratory models of TNBC. The team has also created a novel vaccine called ADVac (adipocyte-directed vaccine) for further development.

Progress Thus Far

Dr. Disis and her colleagues established that weekly immunizations of STEMVAC can be effectively administered to elicit high levels of Type I T-cells. In other studies, Dr. Disis developed ADVac, a vaccine that recognizes proteins present in inflammatory fat cells—this exploits the findings that obesity is a risk factor for breast cancer and the inflammation that develops in fat contributes to abnormal cell growth. In the last year, her team demonstrated that ADVac immunization of laboratory models resulted in high levels of anti-inflammatory immune cells.

What’s next

Dr. Disis and her team will continue their studies to uncover potential biomarkers that could be used to assess the response of patients to the combination of immunotherapy and chemotherapy. They will continue preclinical testing of the STEMVAC-chemotherapy combination to define a clinic-ready treatment regimen and set the stage for phase 2 clinical trials. They will also continue to characterize ADVac and pursue studies to advance STEMVAC for use in the clinic with the goal of providing alternative strategies for treating patients with mTNBC who are becoming resistant to chemotherapy and at high-risk of recurrence.

If not for BCRF, we would not have the opportunity to rapidly translate our work from the lab into the clinic.– Dr. Disis


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


Donor Recognition

The Delta Air Lines Award

Areas of Focus