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Associate Professor of Oncology
Member, Tumor Immunology Research Program
Member, Breast Cancer Research Program
One of Leisha Emens’ patients has dubbed her a rock star of the oncology world. It’s not a far-fetched analogy. Like a rock star, Emens has a group of loyal devotees; hers just happen to be women with breast cancer. By being a part of experimental clinical trials to test the therapeutic breast cancer vaccine that Emens first created almost fifteen years ago during her fellowship at Johns Hopkins, these patients have come to appreciate her risk-taking nature, intense drive and singular ambition to bring the vaccine and other new, cutting edge immune-based therapies from bench to bedside.
“I’ve dedicated my career to finding ways to harness the immune system to fight cancer,” Emens says. She believes immunotherapy one day will revolutionize cancer care and, ultimately, prevention. But she also acknowledges the enormous challenges to making this happen.
The job that Emens is trying to get her breast cancer vaccine to do is inherently different, and more difficult, than the way a preventive vaccine works. Vaccines that prevent infectious diseases target foreign bodies. But because cancer arises from one’s own body, the immune system doesn’t recognize it as an invader; therefore, it doesn’t become activated to destroy the cancer as easily. What’s more, as the cancer spreads, the immune system learns to tolerate it.
“What we’re trying to do with therapeutic cancer vaccines and other immune-based cancer treatments is to develop ways to eliminate those pathways of tolerance and peel back those layers of regulation that keep the immune response to tumors shut off,” Emens explains.
Emens predicts that, in five years, the dramatic revolution in cancer immunotherapy will enter the clinic in force. She doesn’t attribute this pending success to her own incredible drive, but rather that which pervades Johns Hopkins. “It’s a great place to translate the science. Here, it’s a priority to get things from the lab to the clinic,” she says.