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Robert H. Vonderheide, MD, D.Phil

Director, Abramson Cancer Center
Perelman School of Medicine
John H. Glick Abramson Cancer Center Professor
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Current Research

Goal: To develop new immune therapies for breast cancer patients.

Impact: Dr. Vonderheide is conducting trials of several immune-based approaches for prevention and treatment of breast cancer, with a particular focus on a vaccine that may protect those with inherited mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes from developing the disease. His work may reveal new opportunities for immunotherapy for patients with breast cancer and those with a high breast cancer risk.                  

What’s next: Having recently achieved positive results in three trials this year (including one of the vaccines), he and his team will now test their effectiveness in larger studies.

Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that stimulates the immune system to fight cancer. While it has been effective in improving long-term outcomes in those with certain types of cancer such as melanoma and lung cancer, relatively few breast cancer patients benefit from immunotherapy. Dr. Vonderheide is exploring and testing new ways to make breast tumors more responsive to immunotherapy, and he is also working on a vaccine that would protect those at high risk of breast cancer from developing the disease.

Full Research Summary

Research area: Developing immune therapies for patients with breast cancer.

Impact: Immunotherapy has been effective in some types of cancers including some triple negative breast cancers, but most breast cancer patients have not benefited from current immunotherapies. Dr. Vonderheide’s research is focused on developing immunotherapies that stimulate a patient's own immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells effectively. He and his team are conducting studies that will reveal new opportunities for new immunotherapies and prevention strategies for patients and high-risk individuals.

Current investigation: Dr.Vonderheide’s team is investigating the immune response in human breast cancer patients, with the goal of developing and testing a novel vaccine that may prevent breast cancer in healthy but high-risk individuals.

What he’s learned so far:  He and his colleagues have conducted a series “proof-of-concept” clinical trials designed to reveal new opportunities for immunotherapy for patients with metastatic breast cancer or breast cancers that could benefit from radiation therapy in combination with immunotherapy. Initial clinical results have been promising positive, justifying moving these approaches into larger trials. Dr. Vonderheide’s work also suggest that vaccination may be a promising approach against breast cancer recurrence.

What’s next: Dr. Vonderheide and his team will continue to expand on research from their immunotherapy-focused clinical trials. They are also designing a vaccine for high-risk healthy individuals carrying mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes as a next step toward cancer prevention.


Robert H. Vonderheide, MD, DPhil, is Director, Abramson Cancer Center, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the John H. Glick, MD Abramson Cancer Center’s Director Professor. Dr. Vonderheide graduated from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and Harvard Medical School. He completed training in internal medicine and medical oncology at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Dr. Vonderheide is a distinguished scientist and clinician who has deciphered mechanisms of cancer immune surveillance and developed novel cancer therapeutics, particularly in pancreatic cancer. He is well-recognized for driving the development of agonist CD40 antibodies, now in later stage clinical trials as potential immune therapy of cancer. Dr. Vonderheide discovered telomerase as a universal tumor antigen and has led the efforts to develop telomerase vaccination for both therapy and the prevention of cancer in healthy individuals. He has helped lead a team to show that stereotactic radiation therapy in combination with dual checkpoint blockade represents a synergistic path for immune activation in cancer. Dr. Vonderheide merges his clinical investigations with rigorous studies in laboratory model systems. Dr. Vonderheide has been continuously funded by the NCI, and his high-impact findings have been published in Nature, Science, Cell and the New England Journal of Medicine.

Grid Researcher Headshot - Vonderheide R

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The William P. Lauder Award

Area(s) of Focus