Fall 2010

'This is the most fulfilling job I can imagine'

Dr. Nora Disis seeks to keep cancer at bay through vaccines



Amidst the test tubes and whirring machines in Dr. Mary “Nora” Disis’ expansive laboratory, you’ll often see an unusual sight: patients.

These visitors come to see the cancer vaccine research that might save their lives. And it gives the lab scientists the opportunity to come face-to-face with the beneficiaries of their work.

“Having patients up here all of the time puts a face on what we’re doing,” said Disis, a Hutchinson Center immunology researcher and oncologist. “We can tangibly see that we’re doing something to try to better others’ lives.”

Dr. Nora Disis
Dr. Nora Disis
Disis and her 35-member Tumor Vaccine Group based at the University of Washington are researching ways to prevent the recurrence of breast and ovarian cancer through vaccines that boost their patients’ immune systems.

It’s a focus with lifesaving potential: 30 percent of women diagnosed with invasive breast cancer will have recurrences within five years, and 80 percent of women treated for ovarian cancer relapse after the first treatment. The vaccine team recruits cancer patients whose tumors have responded well to surgery and therapies but whose chances of recurrence are high.

The cancer vaccine stimulates the patients’ disease-fighting response by targeting a protein called H2N, which is found on the surface of the cancer cells in many women.

These cancer cells are not seen as foreign by the body, so there’s no danger signal to stimulate the immune system, said Disis, who also directs the UW’s Institute for Translational Health Sciences and is a professor of medicine in the oncology division.

“Our goal is to create a vaccine that will activate immunity to very high levels very rapidly” against the H2N protein, Disis said.

Results have been promising. In early clinical trials of patients with metastatic breast cancer, 40 percent were still alive nine years after vaccination.

In a subsequent study of similar, late-stage breast cancer patients who used the drug Herceptin—a group whose average survival is 18 to 23 months—Disis and colleagues found more than 80 percent of the patients were alive more than three years after vaccination and 40 percent never experienced disease recurrence.

Given the pace of developments in the past five years, Disis is confident that cancer vaccines will be available within the next decade. She points to the proof of progress in 2009, when three advanced clinical trials showed benefit to vaccination in patients with prostate cancer, follicular lymphoma and melanoma. “When people ask why it’s taking so long, I’d say we’re here. This is it,” she said.

And Disis is thrilled to be at the forefront of these breakthroughs. “This is the most fulfilling job I can imagine. There’s not one day where I don’t think, ‘How lucky can I be?’”

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