Q & A with Dr. Nora Disis

The money we raise through Komen Puget Sound provides real-time help to our neighbors while combining with dollars from national Komen to fund scientists at the University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to end breast cancer. In just the past three years, these local researchers received a total of more than $2.1 million to learn more about inherited breast cancer, why breast cancer recurs, how to treat metastatic disease, and who is most susceptible to breast cancer.

The work of Komen Scholar Dr. Nora Disis focuses on the development of a breast cancer vaccine. In October 2017, we visited Dr. Disis’ lab and asked for more details on the status and promise of her work.

KPS: In your own words, please give us a summary of your Komen-funded work against breast cancer.

Dr. Disis: Komen funding has supported our work to develop a vaccine that would reduce the risk of developing cancer if you were overweight by reducing the abnormal inflammation that sometime develops in fat cells that are too big. This inflammation over a long period of time causes normal cells to start to grow abnormally and leads to cancer.  We have identified abnormal proteins on fat cells that become upregulated in obesity, and we use those proteins as a target to drive T-cells that shut off inflammation into fat.  In most models, vaccination will reduce information in fat, reduce blood glucose levels, and reduce triglyceride levels- all of which become abnormal in fat mice.

KPS: How would a vaccine work against breast cancer? Would it be preventive, or would it address an existing early-stage or advanced cancer?

Dr. Disis: While we do develop vaccine for treatment, this anti-inflammatory vaccine would actually be used in patients who DID NOT have cancer.  It would be used in patients who had put on weight after menopause, developed type II diabetes and hypertension and had signs of inflammatory fat.  These would be the women with potentially higher risk of getting breast cancer.  Our vaccine, we hope, would reduce their risk.

KPS: What secretly excites you, the investigator, about the work you’re doing?

Dr. Disis: The most exciting thing about our research is being able to take our ideas from the laboratory into the clinic.  Our group has much experience in developing vaccines and then running clinical trials of the approach.  Our goal is to prevent breast cancer.  We hope effective vaccines will put us out of a job!

Susan G. Komen is the largest non-profit source of breast cancer research funding other than the U.S. government. Komen is focused on research to stem metastatic and aggressive disease and find scientifically sound preventive strategies.

For more about Susan G. Komen-funded breast cancer research and the research grants process, visit http://ww5.komen.org/ResearchGrants/GrantPrograms.html.