Oregon Health & Science University

Portland, Oregon
Chairwoman of the Department of Cell, Developmental & Cancer Biology
Associate Director for Basic Research in the Knight Cancer Institute
Hildegard Lamfrom Endowed Chair in Basic Science

Research Projects

Immune therapies have revolutionized cancer medicine by re-activating the immune system and enabling its cancer-fighting T cells to again, kill tumor cells. However, for many cancers, including breast cancer (BC) and the deadly triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), the new immunotherapy called immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs) are not enough. The ICIs have only a modest response.

While BCs with high levels of cancer-fighting T cells exhibit better overall survival, those with an abundance of macrophages (another immune cell type) instead correlate with a poor outcome. Dr. Lisa Coussens’ research shows that macrophages in BC block the cancer-fighting properties of T cells and thus, aid tumor growth.

Significantly, her lab demonstrated the suppression of T cells by macrophages could be alleviated by a combination of two to four specific combinations of drugs – given in a step-wise addition – with four drugs resulting in the best outcome.

With NFCR support, her lab is evaluating the pathways and protein candidates from omic’ data – such as genomic and proteomic data, (DNA, RNA, and proteins) – in BC models that contribute to a response or resistance to these four treatments.

To accomplish the complex ‘omic’ analyses, Dr. Coussens is collaborating with NFCR-supported scientist, Dr. Elana Fertig, an expert mathematician and systems biologist who develops powerful computer-based methods to analyze ‘omic’ data in response and resistance to cancer treatments. The scientists will compare the candidates from BC models with human datasets.

The identification and validation of biomarkers of the different cell states during the four treatments may predict a patient’s response to each treatment. The biomarkers can help stratify patients for doctors to precisely deliver the treatments to individual patients, improving outcomes for patients with TNBC and other BCs.

Significantly; comparison of the biomarkers to those in datasets for other types of cancer may offer the same precise administration of treatments, giving many patients a better outcome and hope for long-term survival.


Dr. Lisa Coussens is Chairwoman of the Department of Cell, Developmental & Cancer Biology, and Associate Director for Basic Research in the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health & Sciences University, and holds the Hildegard Lamfrom Endowed Chair in Basic Science.

Lisa Coussens received her bachelor of arts in biology from San Francisco State University in 1980. She was a research associate in molecular and developmental biology at Genentech, Inc. from 1981-1988, prior to obtaining her Ph.D. in Biological Chemistry from the University of California Los Angeles in 1993.

Utilizing mouse models of mesothelioma, cutaneous, head and neck, pancreas and mammary carcinoma, her research identified critical immune-regulated pathways for therapeutic targeting that are being clinically translated in combination with chemotherapy in women with metastatic TNBC, pancreas cancer, and head & neck squamous cancer.

Dr. Coussens’ has received multiple awards for her scientific contributions underlying mechanisms of cancer development. She received the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Gertrude B. Elion Award (2001) and in 2012, the AACR-Women in Cancer Research Charlotte Friend Memorial Lectureship. She received the 13th Rosalind E. Franklin Award from the National Cancer Institute (2015), a Doctor in Medicine (honoris causa) from the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina (2018), the 12th AACR-Princess Takamatsu Memorial Lectureship (2018), a Career Award from the European Academy of Tumor Immunology (2018), and the 2018 Susan G. Komen Brinker Award for Scientific Distinction in Basic Science. She was elected as Fellow of the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS; 2018); Fellow of the AACR Academy (2019); and recently elected as President of AACR (2022-2023).

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Related Updates

What is Genomic Sequencing, and Who Can Benefit?

There’s a paradigm shift taking place in the world of cancer treatment. Experts are moving away from an organ-focused approach to treatment, like using radiation to treat the specific area affected by cancer. Instead, they’re looking at genomic sequencing.  Genomics is the branch of molecular biology concerned with the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of an individual’s genes. Regarding cancer, genomics allows experts to examine DNA to determine an individual’s risk of cancer through genomic sequencing. This means that oncologists can provide more individualized treatment options for patients using precision medicine.  How can cancer risk be determined through genomic sequencing? Parents pass along many traits to their children, such as hair and eye color. Unfortunately, the risk of developing certain types of cancer can also pass along. By examining DNA, experts can identify certain changes in a person’s DNA known for increasing their risk of developing various types of cancer. However, not all cancers pass genetically. In fact, only five to ten percent of all cancers are believed to have an inherited gene mutation. It is important to note that no test can provide exact answers about a person’s inherited cancer risk. Genetic testing can tell whether a specific genetic mutation exists in the DNA. However, it cannot tell whether an individual will develop the disease associated with that mutation later in life or not. What is the benefit of genomic sequencing? Genomic sequencing cannot prevent a cancer diagnosis but can help identify cancer-related DNA mutations. This means an individual can implement precautionary measures. These measures could include making healthy lifestyle changes, such as exercising regularly, ceasing smoking, or reducing alcohol consumption. Depending on the type of mutation, medications may be available to reduce one’s risk of developing cancer. Similarly, genomic sequencing may highlight the option of surgery to remove an organ or gland to prevent cancer from forming or promote undergoing more health screenings regularly.  Who should utilize genomic sequencing? Experts typically only recommend genetic sequencing for patients whose families have a history of certain cancers or patterns of cancer. Doctors may order genetic testing for people that have: Multiple first-degree relatives with cancer diagnoses; Numerous relatives who have been diagnosed with the same cancer on one side of the family; A family history of cancers linked to a single gene mutation, such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer, or pancreatic cancer; Family member(s) who has been diagnosed with more than one type of cancer; Family member(s) who has been diagnosed with cancer at a younger age than typically seen for that cancer, such as colon cancer; Close relatives who have been diagnosed with cancers linked to rare hereditary cancer syndromes, such as Hereditary Breast & Ovarian Cancer Syndrome (HBOC), Cowden Syndrome, or Lynch Syndrome; or Family member(s) who has been diagnosed with rare cancer, such as breast cancer in a male. Can we expect more research in genomic sequencing?  National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) is committed to advancing genomic research and its potential to be the future of developing treatment plans for cancer patients. As such, NFCR funds a dozen world-renowned researchers paving the way in genomic research. […]

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