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Robert H. Vonderheide, MD, D.Phil

University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Titles and Affiliations

Director, Abramson Cancer Center
John H. Glick, MD Abramson Cancer Center’s Professor
Vice Dean, Cancer Programs, Perelman School of Medicine
Vice President, Cancer Programs, University of Pennsylvania Health System

Research area

Developing a novel immunotherapy to prevent breast cancer in patients with known BRCA mutations.


Activating immune systems to fight cancer is one of the most promising new pathways for cancer therapy. Initial immunotherapy drugs have produced exciting results in melanoma and lung cancer but have not shown as much impact in breast cancer. Immunotherapies have much promise, yet we are only beginning to understand how to make them work effectively in all patients. Dr. Vonderheide and his team are developing a novel immunotherapy vaccine to prevent de novo breast cancer and recurrence in patients with known BRCA mutations.

Progress Thus Far

Dr. Vonderheide’s DNA-based vaccine is specific for the human telomerase catalytic domain (hTERT) which is overexpressed in more than 95% of breast cancers. He and his team are conducting a phase I clinical trial comprised of two cohorts to test the vaccine for cancer prevention. One cohort (cohort A) within the trial has completed enrollment with 16 patients carrying BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations in cancer remission. The other cohort (cohort B) is comprised of healthy individuals who carry the BRCA mutations; this is the first prevention vaccine tested in this high-risk population. To date, participants in each cohort have been vaccinated with no serious side effects. They will further collect samples from these patients to perform assessments of post-vaccination activity of their immune cells.

What’s Next

Dr. Vonderheide’s team will continue enrolling into cohort B of the vaccine trial, monitoring vaccine toxicities and adverse events, and collecting samples from participants. In addition, the team will test the vaccine in laboratory models to understand the mechanism of immune suppression and find new molecular pathways to enhance the vaccine, with the goal of making their new vaccine prototype capable of intercepting breast cancer development in all high-risk individuals. They hope to leverage the knowledge they gain from these important clinical and laboratory studies to develop novel cancer prevention and interception strategies.


Robert H. Vonderheide, MD, D.Phil. is Director of the Abramson Cancer Center and Vice Dean for Cancer Programs at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the Vice President for Cancer Programs for the University of Pennsylvania Health System and the John H. Glick, MD Abramson Cancer Center’s Director Professor. Dr. Vonderheide received his DPhil from Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar) and MD from Harvard Medical School. He completed training in internal medicine and medical oncology at 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 merges his clinical investigations with rigorous studies in genetically engineered mouse models or other laboratory systems. Dr. Vonderheide has been continuously funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), served in many roles with the American Association of Cancer Research and NCI, and his high-impact findings have been published in Nature, Science, Cell and the New England Journal of Medicine.

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Judy and Leonard Lauder Award

Areas of Focus

Treatment Tumor Biology