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Olivera (Olja) J. Finn, PhD

University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Titles and Affiliations

Distinguished Professor of Immunology and Surgery and Founding Chair of Department of Immunology, University of Pittsburgh

Research area

Developing vaccines for breast cancer.


Vaccines have had a major impact in preventing or eliminating deadly infectious diseases. Recently, COVID-19 vaccines prevented over 19 million deaths globally in 2021 alone. This immense power of vaccines has not yet been realized for the prevention of breast cancer. Infectious disease vaccines prepare the immune system to eliminate foreign invaders, viruses or bacteria. Cancer is not a foreign invader but nevertheless can be perceived by the immune system as foreign because cancer cells express molecules that are different from those expressed by normal cells. Some of those molecules, known as tumor antigens, are expressed very early in tumor development. Ideally, vaccines for cancer prevention will prepare the immune system to see tumor antigens on a developing tumor and destroy it.

Dr. Finn has been testing one such vaccine based on the tumor antigen MUC1 that is expressed on early, precancerous cells. This vaccine has already been shown to be safe and effective at inducing long-term immunity in patients at high risk for lung or colon cancer, and to prevent development of new pre-cancerous cells in the colon. It is thought that MUC1 vaccine can prevent development of breast cancer in patients diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS, a pre-cancerous lesion). Dr. Finn and her team will run a trial to test the safety and efficacy of a MUC1 vaccine compared to control in women diagnosed with pre-cancerous lesions prior to surgery.

What’s next

The study is anticipated to open in 2023 and accrue 50 patients over 3-4 years. If the MUC1 vaccine proves effective at preventing invasive breast cancer, it could replace surgery and chemotherapy as breast cancer prevention approaches.


Olivera (Olja) J. Finn is the University of Pittsburgh Distinguished Professor of Immunology and Surgery and Founding Chair of the Department of Immunology, the position she held from 2001 to 2013. She was Program Leader of the Cancer Immunology Program at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute from 1991 to 2014.

After receiving her PhD in Immunology at Stanford University in 1980, and completing her postdoctoral training there in 1982, Dr. Finn moved to Duke University and in 1991 to the University of Pittsburgh. She gained prominence through her original focus on transplantation biology and later through her basic and applied research focused on tumor antigens and the development of cancer vaccines. She has an extensive track record of research accomplishments reported in over 200 peer-reviewed papers and numerous reviews and book chapters. She is the discoverer of the MUC1 tumor antigen and has published extensively and continuously for the last 25 years on her basic and preclinical work on the development and evaluation of MUC1 cancer vaccines. She has been a co-investigator on a dozen clinical trials of various MUC1 vaccines in pancreatic, colon, breast, prostate and lung cancer. Dr. Finn and her team also identified cyclin B1 as a tumor antigen and published several papers on its excellent potential as a cancer vaccine. Her current efforts are on the development of preventative cancer vaccines.

Dr. Finn is an active member of the American Association of Immunologists where she served seven years as Council member and one year as President. She also served two terms as Councilor of the International Union of Immunology Societies (IUIS) and is currently Chair of the IUIS Committee on Gender Equality and Career Development. She is also member of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and Past Chair of the Steering Committee of the AACR Cancer Immunology (CIMM) Working Group. She is also a member of the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer (SITC). She has served on NCI study sections and was a member of the NCI Board of Councilors. She has trained 25 PhD and MD/PhD students in her laboratory and over 60 postdoctoral fellows, many of whom hold important positions in academic institutions or biomedical companies. She received twice the Mentor of the Year Award from the University of Pittsburgh. In 2016, Dr. Finn was the recipient of the AAI Life Time Achievement Award as well as NCI Outstanding Investigator Award. In 2017 she was honored with the AACR CIR Lloyd Old Cancer Immunology Prize. In 2019, Finn was awarded the SITC Richard V. Smalley Memorial Award, a prestigious award for clinicians and scientists who have an enormous impact on cancer immunotherapy research. Also in 2019, she was inducted into the inaugural class of AAI Distinguished Fellows and in 2022 into Fellows of the SITC Immuno-Oncology Academy.

BCRF Investigator Since


Areas of Focus

Lifestyle & Prevention