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Shelton Earp, MD

Lineberger Professor of Cancer Research
Director, UNC Cancer Care
Professor of Medicine & Pharmacology
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Current Research

  • Seeking to identify the genes and signaling pathways that lead to tumor growth.
  • Laboratory studies are ongoing to develop strategies to block the effects of the mutant genes to improve tumor response to therapy.
  • These efforts are paving the way for new drug development and treatment strategies by pinpointing the defects that are driving cancer growth.

In order for tumors to grow and spread, tumor cells have to reprogram normal processes to support their abnormal growth and evade detection by the body’s immune system. They do this by changing the activity of genes that regulate growth processes. Dr. Earp is conducting studies to identify genes and proteins that have become dysregulated to identify new targets for drug development. Current studies are focused on strategies to improve response to immunotherapies in advanced breast cancers. 

Full Research Summary

Cancer is driven by growth pathways that become dysregulated and cause abnormal cell growth. These pathways are activated by proteins on the tumor cell called receptors. Dr. Earp and his team are working to uncover genes that regulate breast cancer growth and the body’s immune response to breast cancer.
Dr. Earp's lab discovered an important molecule called Mer Receptor Tyrosine Kinase (MerTK). MerTk and a related protein, Axl, can play roles in breast cancer cell survival, metastasis, and suppression of the immune response against cancer. MerTK and Axl work together to block anti-tumor immune pathways and thus prevents the new generation of immunotherapies from working. 
Dr. Earp’s team previously observed that patients with metastatic triple negative breast cancer have an increase in an immunosuppressive cell type in their blood. This year, they will conduct experiments to optimize MerTK inhibition to create a strong, anti-breast cancer cell immune response.
Collectively, Dr. Earp's BCRF-supported research has helped to identify potential new targets for drug development, as well as strategies to stimulate anti-tumor activity by the body's own immune system.


Shelton Earp is the Lineberger Professor of Cancer Research, Director of UNC Cancer Care and former Director of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer. In these roles, he has helped develop basic, clinical and public health research and cancer care at one of the country’s premier public universities and academic medical centers. He serves as Principal Investigator of the UNC Breast Cancer SPORE and his laboratory conducts fundamental and translational research in breast cancer and childhood leukemia. His group has discovered and studied genes involved in a range of cancers, published over 160 biomedical-research articles and been continuously funded by NIH for over 35 years. He is currently collaborating with the UNC Chemical Biology Center in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy to develop a new, first-in-class drug targeting one of the cancer genes discovered in his lab. Inhibition of this gene may stimulate a breast cancer patient’s innate immunity against their cancer.

Dr. Earp has received UNC School of Medicine teaching awards and chaired national review committees for the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute.  He has served as President of the American Association of Cancer Institutes, on the NCI Board of Scientific Advisors, and on the advisory boards of ten university cancer centers.  His lab is supported by NIH grants, the Breast SPORE and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

Grid Researcher Headshot - Earp HS

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Estée Lauder Award

Area(s) of Focus