• Can the Body’s Immune System Help Fight Breast Cancer? Brinker Awardee, Dr. Lisa Coussens, is Trying to Find Out

    Headlines & Helpful Information, Research, Leadership


    Each year the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium brings researchers, advocates, clinicians and industry from around the world together to highlight the latest research discoveries and to discuss the critical issues facing the breast cancer community.  And each year, one of the highlights of the conference is the honoring of two respected researchers with the Susan G. Komen Brinker Award for Scientific Distinction. 

    This year, the 2018 Brinker Award for Scientific Distinction in Basic Science was presented to Lisa Coussens, Ph.D., Professor of Cell, Developmental and Cancer Biology, School of Medicine, at the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health & Sciences University in Portland, OR.

    Dr. Coussens accepting her award from Komen CEO, Paula Schneider


    Dr. Coussens has made several pivotal discoveries about the role of immune cells in cancer development and progression.  In a seminal study, she demonstrated that certain immune cells were actually “hijacked” by early tumors to promote breast cancer growth and metastasis.  She and her team discovered an intricate cell-cell communication process through which tumor cells trigger T-lymphocytes or T-cells (a type of white blood cell involved in controlling the immune response to foreign substances) to recruit another type of white blood cell called macrophages to early tumors.  Normally involved in clearing debris, macrophages around tumor cells produce epidermal growth factor (EGF) that in turn promotes tumor cell proliferation and invasion.  This provocative finding expanded our understanding of the tumor microenvironment and sparked additional research aimed at reprogramming these immune cells by designing and then testing targeted and immune-based therapies to prevent them from aiding and abetting the cancer.

    We had an opportunity to visit with Dr. Coussens about her work and the recognition of her lab.

    Q. How could your research help individuals facing breast cancer today and in years to come?

    A. The goal of my research – and the goal of every researcher who’s studying breast cancer – is to remove the burden of these cancers from the world. It’s sometimes unrealistic to talk about actual “cures,” but helping a person manage this disease so it is not something to be feared, or something potentially fatal, would be our ultimate goal. We have come so far — and even though we still have a way to go, I am confident that we will be able to end cancer as we currently know it.  My research program is designed to identify barriers that limit the ability of the immune system to effectively eradicate cancers.  Identifying these barriers will lead to new targets for therapy that will hopefully improve outcomes for women with breast cancer.

    Q. What made you decide to focus your research on the role of the tumor microenvironment in breast cancer?

    A. The biology spoke to me! The first time I “saw” tumor cells in a tissue, what struck me was that there were more immune cells present than would-be tumor cells - that fascinated me.  Since Mother Nature is conservative and exquisitely controls inflammatory responses in tissues, that there was such a profound immune response to premalignant tumors was intriguing and compelling. I was very lucky to have mentors who encouraged me to purse that biology and to try and make sense of it.

    Q. What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome in your career?

    A. Throughout my career it has been very clear to me that scientists, like others, become attached to certain points of view or certain ways of viewing data.  For any scientist that tries to introduce a new concept or that challenges a long-held paradigm, they run an uphill battle and initially deal with skepticism.  To get the new concept appreciated and eventually accepted, you have to not only be persistent and continually present the data in as unbiased a way as possible, but you also have to become a very clear communicator.  If successful and the data are compelling, people then begin to let go of their traditional way of viewing things and start to consider what the science is showing them.  When I first started investigating the role of inflammation and the tumor microenvironment in cancer, I encountered significant skepticism (to say the least).  But being naturally persistent, passionate about the science and fortunate enough to attract tremendously talented young scientists to my lab, we persevered and were able to communicate novel concepts that have now become generally accepted.

    Q. What is, in your opinion, the most recent advance in breast cancer research that patients should be aware of?

    A. One very important thing that has changed, in my career, is access to clinical trial specimens.  It is very important for patients to understand how important their participation in clinical trials is, and that providing researchers access to tumor material is the only way to rapidly advance cancer medicine.  For the first time, with amazing new analytical tools, we can now evaluate a woman’s individual tumor at initial diagnosis, and then follow it to reveal how it responds (or doesn’t respond) to neoadjuvant or adjuvant therapy.  This capability will facilitate identifying new and better targets for therapy, as well as educate clinicians about how to combine therapies more judiciously to improve patient outcomes.

    Q. What would you predict will be the next big breakthrough for breast cancer patients?

    A. I think we are going to see tremendous success with immune therapies. It’s unclear which ones, at this point, but in combination with changes to standards of care and targeted therapies, I believe we will change outcomes and quality of life.  These breakthroughs will rely on the partnership between the patient, the researcher, and the caregiver. It’s a team effort.

    Q. What does receiving the Brinker Award for Scientific Distinction in Basic Research mean to you?

    A. I am deeply honored to be recognized in this way. I started my career as a basic science researcher, not because it was a way to gain recognition – but instead because the science was fascinating to me, and I hoped it would lead to a whole new way of thinking about how to treat breast cancer.  To have my laboratory’s research recognized in this way is humbling, and I am very grateful.  This award is a tremendous honor for my lab, all the trainees who have come through my lab, me and my family.  This is truly an honor and speaks to the early science that came out of the lab that has changed the way people think.

    Q. Komen’s Bold Goal is to reduce the current number of breast cancer deaths by 50% in the U.S. within the next decade. As a Brinker Awardee, could you describe how your work will get us closer to our goal?

    A. Every day, sometimes in small ways and sometimes with great leaps, we learn more and more about what causes cancer, what drives it and how it can be controlled.  Our focus is on trying to understand how the immune system drives cancer, but also on how the immune system can be leveraged to control cancer.  There are currently no efficacious immune therapies for breast cancer – our research is revealing barriers impeding immune therapy success, and hopefully identifying new targets for immune therapy. 

    Science is a collaborative endeavor; we all build upon the work that came before us. My hope is our research will lead to new understandings of inflammation in breast cancer that will impact patients, but also will enable others to build upon our work so that together we can erase cancer’s burden on the world. I have never been more optimistic that this dream can be a reality.

    With your support, we can achieve our Bold Goal of reducing the current number of breast cancer deaths by 50% in the U.S. by 2026. Donate today to help us continue funding breakthrough research. 

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