Leisha Emens, MD, PhD • 2020 SITC Election

Leisha Emens, MD, PhD
UPMC Hillman Cancer Center


Dr. Emens is a Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh. She received her MD and PhD as a member of the MSTP at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, pursuing graduate training in immunology and cell biology. She did a post-doctoral fellowship at the NCI, and trained in internal medicine at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, and in hematology and medical oncology at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins University, where she became a translational research leader in cancer vaccine development and immune checkpoint blockade strategies with a focus on breast cancer immunotherapy. She was recently recruited to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center as co-leader of the Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy Program, and Director of Translational Immunotherapy for the Women's Cancer Research Center at Magee Women's Hospital in Pittsburgh.

A widely recognized leader in breast cancer immunotherapy, Dr. Emens has focused her research on the areas of breast cancer vaccines, immune checkpoint blockade for breast cancer, and mechanistically-based combination immunotherapies for cancer. She developed and tested a therapeutic cell-based breast cancer vaccine in investigator-initiated clinical trials, translating the most effective combinations of standard cancer therapies with vaccines from preclinical models to clinical trials in breast cancer patients. She more recently collaborated with pharma in the development of PD-L1 antagonists for breast cancer therapy, resulting in the accelerated FDA approval of the PD-L1 inhibitor atezolizumab with nab-paclitaxel for advanced PD-L1+ triple negative breast cancer. Her research has led to important insights into the mechanisms by which chemotherapy and targeted cancer therapeutics can augment immunotherapy, and her contributions to the development of immune checkpoint blockade helped change the standard of care for metastatic triple negative breast cancer. Her investigator-initiated work has been funded by the NIH, DOD, ACS, and foundations including Komen, the V Foundation, and the BCRF. She has worked with multiple biotechnology/pharmaceutical companies, serving as the global principal investigator for several clinical trials evaluating immune-based therapies for breast cancer. Dr. Emens has participated on scientific advisory boards for biotechnology companies and major pharmaceutical firms, and for several academic breast cancer SPORE programs. She chaired the Clinical Research Review Committee at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, and served a 4-year term on the FDA Advisory Committee on Cellular, Tissue, and Gene Therapies. She is currently on the AACR Cancer Immunology Working Group Steering Committee.

She has been a dedicated SITC member since 2002, serving on the Board of Directors from 2015-2019. She has served as Chair for multiple committees, including the Stakeholders Council for Immunotherapy Education and Outreach, the Communications Committee, the Education and Training Committee, and the Publications Committee. She serves on the Certification Task Force, and co-chairs the Cancer Immunotherapy Guidelines Committee for Breast Cancer. She has participated in multiple SITC strategic leadership retreats, is founding organizer/faculty for both the Advances in Cancer Immunotherapy (ACI) Programs and the SITC Winter School, and served as faculty in the inaugural Sparkathon. She has also organized and served as faculty for collaborative educational programs co-sponsored by SITC and ASCO, AAI, and FOCIS. She is the section editor for the JITC Clinical Trials Monitor, and has also served on the editorial boards of JCO and Cancer Research. Dr. Emens is currently a Hillman Scholar for Innovative Cancer Research and Team Science. Her work has been recognized by the President's Award of the YWCA of Baltimore, the Maryland Governors' Citation, and the Stand Up to Cancer Laura Ziskin Prize in Translational Research.

SITC Election Platform Statement

What are the two or three critical issues facing the field of cancer immunotherapy?

Over the last decade, our field has deployed strategic innovations that have resulted in rapid clinical progress in immunotherapy, including adaptive trial designs, the tight coupling of biomarker development with drug testing, and the integration of immuno-oncology findings across tumors to identify commonalities. Cancer immunotherapy is now a standard of care for many advanced cancers, and is increasingly incorporated into (neo)adjuvant therapy to increase cure rates. The next phase of clinical progress in immuno-oncology will require continued relentless effort and rapt attention to the following critical issues facing our field today in order to rapidly accelerate clinical progress:

  1. Barriers to immune responsiveness. Developing strategies for transforming cold tumors from immune deserts and immune-excluded tumors into highly inflamed tumors poised to respond to immune modulators will bring the benefit of immunotherapy to more patients. This may require inducing immune effectors with vaccines, providing them with adoptive cellular therapies, or driving pre-existing, excluded immune effectors into the tumor microenvironment. Elucidating immune suppressive mechanisms within tumors that are inflamed but fail to have a primary response to immunotherapy, or in tumors that initially respond and then progress, will inform the development of potent combination immunotherapies that result in sustained clinical benefit that avoids immune escape.
  2. Immunoprevention. Primary immunoprevention strategies aimed at intercepting cancer development should have great public health impact. The successful development of cancer immunoprevention will require collaboration between cancer biologists, cancer immunologists, biotechnologists, and clinicians to effectively marry tumor biology, immunobiology and immune prevention approaches, and epidemiologists and statisticians to develop novel trial designs for rapid clinical testing.
  3. Integration. Integration, facilitating the exchange of information and education among all stakeholders of SITC, is one of the core values of the Society. Integration is more important now than ever. We must continue to seamlessly integrate basic, translational, and clinical science to effectively address pressing clinical problems. We must continue to grow clinical expertise in cancer immunotherapy through our consensus guidelines for optimally implementing immuno-oncology in the clinic, and by collaborating with other professional societies to develop educational programming and workshops focused on shared interests and strategies for optimal patient management. It is essential for us to capitalize on the vast breadth and depth of the immunotherapy drug pipeline by continuing to integrate and coordinate the talents, efforts, and resources of stakeholders in academia, biotechnology firms, pharma, and regulatory agencies. We must develop the next generation of leaders in cancer immunotherapy, providing rising stars with unique funding opportunities and meaningful professional development opportunities that effectively integrate them alongside established leaders in the field.

What is your vision for SITC?

My vision for SITC is to continue its growth as the community of diverse and integrated global stakeholders that is committed to the advancement of highly effective immunotherapies for cancer treatment and prevention worldwide. As a Society, we currently face multiple major challenges, including limited research funding, expensive (but highly informative) technology, barriers to collaboration between various stakeholders in the field, the cost and availability of immuno-oncology drugs, and insufficient opportunities for education and training in tumor immunology and cancer immunotherapy. Moreover, the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has dramatically shifted the landscape we all work in, and is truly a black swan event. SITC will need to thoughtfully and rapidly adapt to the impact this historic event may have not only on the resources available to us, but also the way our efforts are structured as the pandemic and our response to it continues to evolve. We are currently implementing new ways to communicate, work, educate, and deliver patient care. We are also finding unexpected opportunities for deploying our immunotherapy expertise through evaluating immune-modulating drugs for treating patients with COVID-19 in collaboration with critical care and infectious disease physicians. Resolute in our commitment to public health, we should be able to apply new scientific and organizational insights from this crisis to even more effectively and efficiently develop potent immunotherapies for cancer treatment and prevention.