The Invincible Kristi Blair
Making cancer treatable, even avoidable: that’s what Kristi Blair, a mother of five, wants, too. And she and Dr. Nora Disis hope it might happen over the next decade.
A Champion for Cancer Vaccines
The Ragen Volunteer Service Award honors Norman Slonaker for his 15-year effort to advance cancer vaccine research at UW Medicine.

From Impossible to Reality: Vaccines to Treat Cancer

Dr. Nora Disis and the Cancer Vaccine Institute prove that laser focus, teamwork and donor support can redefine what’s possible.


“After being in this field for 30 years, we’re finally at a point where we will see cancer vaccines approved for clinical use in the near future,” says Nora Disis, MD, a cancer immunology and translational research expert and the director of the Cancer Vaccine Institute (CVI).

When Disis began her career, she faced considerable skepticism there would ever be a vaccine capable of curing or preventing cancer. In fact, many people didn’t think the immune system had anything to do with cancer.

Today we’re on the cusp of seeing a wide range of therapeutic cancer vaccines being approved for use, thanks to the work of Disis and her colleagues at the CVI. In the span of one lifetime, they’ve redefined what we think is possible when it comes to cancer treatment and prevention — and the implications are huge.

Focused on a goal

As a young researcher who was interested in the intersection of the immune system and cancer, Disis knew Seattle was the place to be. She chose an oncology fellowship at UW Medicine because there was already a strong tumor immunology program here. And she stayed to pursue one goal: making cancer vaccines that could stimulate an immune response and stop cancer.

Over the course of her career, Disis has noticed how other researchers with the same goal are frequently lured to other, better-funded areas of research, so she dug in. “I thought, we’re never going to crack this nut unless some people can just stick it out,” she says.

Now, three decades later, we have an effective breast cancer vaccine close to approval. Disis began studying breast cancer because, she notes wryly, as the only female oncology fellow she was assigned to the breast cancer clinic. She began treating patients while simultaneously investigating whether their cancers stimulated an immune response.

What she found gave her hope: Her breast cancer patients were in fact having an immune response to their cancer cells — opening the door even wider to the possibility of a cancer vaccine.

But this discovery raised new questions: What kind of an immune response could destroy cancer? How could a vaccine generate such a response? And how would Disis be able to take this information and turn it into effective vaccines without a team of experts?

Forget the lone-wolf scientist, it takes a team

Disis has always wanted to be part of a translational research team, working to transform or “translate” basic-science discoveries made in a laboratory into useful treatments and interventions for patients. This process of taking an idea from the lab to the patient is often called “from bench-to-bedside,” and it requires wide-ranging expertise. The idea of running such a team didn’t appeal to Disis but being a part of one did.

“I wanted to work with specialized personnel who knew how to do things that I had absolutely no idea how to do. And there was nothing like that around. Absolutely nothing,” says Disis, who speculates it might have to do with how we celebrate the idea of the lone-wolf scientist.

However, Disis realized she could attract more brilliant minds by seeking partners united around a goal rather than a person, so she founded the Cancer Vaccine Institute (CVI) — to manage, treat and prevent cancer with vaccines.

Over the course of 20 years, the CVI has become the largest academic group in the U.S. dedicated to the development of cancer vaccines with 15 patents, 30 clinical trials, five vaccines in the marketplace and over 400 patients vaccinated. “I recently learned that we’re among the top 10 producers of cancer vaccines in the world,” says Disis. “You can’t do that unless you have a team.”

Vaccines vs. cancer

Why are vaccines exciting? Because they work, says Disis.

“My grandmother died of diphtheria during childbirth, as did the baby she gave birth to. If you think about it, three generations ago the major cause of death was infectious disease and people lived to around age 50. That’s not the case anymore. Vaccines are undoubtedly one of the top innovations that have changed our lives,” says Disis.

And unlike chemotherapy drugs, which stay in the body for a limited time, vaccine immunity can last forever, especially with regular booster shots. Moreover, vaccines can target cancer at the level of the individual cell, sparing healthy cells and minimizing side effects.

After Disis determined that “a tissue-destructive” immune response was needed to eradicate cancer, she and her colleagues had to develop a vaccine that would generate this response in people and teach the immune system to distinguish harmful cancer cells from healthy ones — a challenging task since cancer is a master of disguise.

Unlike a virus, which the immune system easily recognizes as an invader, cancer arises from one’s own cells, mutating and proliferating. And it has evolved sophisticated ways of evading the immune system. For this reason, the immune system has trouble distinguishing cancer cells from healthy ones, frequently failing to mount a big enough response and allowing cancer to spread undetected.

But for a subset of women with breast cancer, Disis was able to blow cancer’s cover with the discovery that a certain protein in some breast cancer could trigger the immune system.

Dr. Nora Disis

Nora Disis, MD
» Director, Cancer Vaccine Institute
» Associate Dean, Translational Health Sciences
» Professor of Medicine and Adjunct » Professor of Pathology and Obstetrics and Gynecology
» Helen B. Slonaker Endowed Professor for Cancer Research
» American Cancer Society Clinical Research Professor

Dr. Kiran Dhillon

Kiran Dhillon, PhD
» Executive Director, Cancer Vaccine Institute

Dr. Shaveta Vinayak

Shaveta Vinayak, MD
» Director of Clinical Trials, Cancer Vaccine Institute
» Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Oncology

Enroll in a Clinical Trial

Clinical trial phases explained:
Phase I: Focused on safety of new treatment.
Phase II: Demonstrates whether a new treatment has a clinical effect.
Phase III: Tests the new treatment against the standard of care.

The CVI always needs more patients to enroll in clinical trials. View all clinical trials available at the CVI. To see all clinical trials across the country, visit the national website:

Wildly successful clinical trials

A huge research breakthrough came when Disis identified that a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) was immunogenic. This protein is found in elevated levels in around 30% of women with breast cancer, causing their cancer to grow rapidly.

This discovery allowed Disis and her colleagues to create a vaccine that trains the immune system to find and destroy cancer cells with this protein. Of the 66 women enrolled in a phase I clinical trial, all had advanced stage (stage 3 or 4) HER2 positive breast cancer, and 80% are still alive today, 10 years after vaccination. Comparatively, the median survival rate for stage 4 HER2 positive breast cancer is five years.

Similarly, a phase I ovarian cancer trial has seen remarkable results, with over half of participants with advanced stage ovarian cancer still alive eight years later, compared to an average survival rate of only 18 months.

Many of these former clinical trial participants still write letters to Disis, marveling at how long they’ve survived with stage 4 cancer. And there is a growing cohort who want to be more involved with research. “That’s why I love this work,” says Disis. “Thinking that I did do something for this person. That’s why we’re all in it.”

From treating to preventing cancer

Most of the CVI clinical trials underway (at present there are seven) are testing vaccines that help cure existing cancer or keep it from returning. But what about a vaccine to keep cancer from appearing in the first place?

That’s a bit more challenging. “We don’t know what we’re immunizing against. The patient doesn’t have cancer, so we have to think outside of the box,” Disis says.

One such out-of-the-box preventative vaccine that the CVI is working on is called STEMVAC, which targets five cancer stem cell proteins. The vaccine could prevent several types of cancer and is currently being tested in a phase II lung-cancer study and a breast cancer study.

CVI researchers are also creating a vaccine for colon cancer that targets pre-cancerous lesions called colon adenomas.

A tipping point in cancer vaccine research

How did we get to this point? It wasn’t just one thing, but a convergence of many things, Disis thinks.

“All of our work in immune therapy and cancer has shown us the type of immune response we need to kill cancer. We’ve got a lot more tools to get that response. We have a great idea of what types of immunogenic proteins are in cancer. We know the patients who will benefit the most from vaccines and we have highly effective vaccine technology that we didn’t have 20 years ago,” Disis says.

This last reason — rapidly evolving vaccine technology — was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, a long history of cancer vaccine research informed the rapid development of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. And their subsequent widespread use has helped paved the way for DNA vaccines, which Disis uses, easing FDA concerns about safety and efficacy.

So far, the CVI has given over 2,600 vaccines, around half of them DNA vaccines, and they have not seen any serious side effects beyond mild, short-lived flu-like symptoms typical of any immune reaction, such as with the COVID-19 vaccine.

And, of course, clinical trial volunteers are key to the entire process. They don’t know whether they’re receiving an actual vaccine or a placebo, Disis points out, but they enroll anyway to help drive research forward, so others will benefit even if they don’t.

To help oversee the vast clinical trials program at the CVI and to enhance recruitment for clinical trials from diverse populations, the CVI recently hired Shaveta Vinayak, MD, the new director of clinical trials. One of Vinayak’s goals is to increase the diversity of trial participants in vaccine studies.

“Diversity is incredibly important,” says Disis. “Not everyone responds to the vaccine the same way. So, unless you have a representative group of people that you’re trying to help, you are not going to end up with a therapy that works for everyone.”

But there is one more huge contributing factor that has brought us to this point, says Disis, and that is private

Philanthropy’s critical role

From the time an idea is generated — especially if it’s a fringe idea — to the time it is turned into a useful therapy or treatment, philanthropy accelerates the process and supports lifesaving research that might not otherwise receive funding.

Private support launches ideas that federal grantors deem too risky. Take Disis’ microbiome project, for example. With philanthropic investment, Disis and her team are creating a probiotic that could help cure cancer.

The idea came to them after discovering that certain bacteria in our microbiome stimulate T cells that dampen the immune response, and these T cells travel from the gut to tumor sites, assisting tumor growth. So CVI researchers created precision probiotics that increase bacteria that assist the immune response and decrease bacteria that dampen it. They’re finding these probiotics can significantly slow tumor growth and improve immune therapy.

“Our microbiome project started with someone who gave us a donation. Now we have over $3 million dollars in federal funding. We’re developing a new therapeutic in probiotics because of the generosity of this one donor. Then other donors began pitching in, which made us move fast,” says Disis.

Without private philanthropy, everything would slow to a snail’s pace, she says. Grant cycles are long. Private gifts and donations help the CVI complete clinical trials faster and more efficiently. And, most critically, private funding covers essential costs, like the cost of manufacturing vaccines, which means donor funding is needed to create the vaccines for every clinical trial.

Thanks to accelerated research supported by private funding, Disis thinks therapeutic cancer vaccines will be widely available in five to 10 years, and new preventative vaccines for solid-tumor cancers will also soon be available at an affordable price. If the past is any indication, her vision is on track.

“In my one career, we’ve gone from my first research project — trying to figure out whether the immune system had anything to do with cancer — to the FDA approving immunotherapy to treat cancer eight years ago. That’s like going from 0 to 100 in one lifetime,” says Disis. “And this research really makes a difference in people’s lives.”

Written by Eleanor Licata

Anita’s Story

Anita Triolo

“In 2005, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. The prognosis wasn’t good. Then I had the opportunity to be part of a phase 1 clinical trial for a breast cancer vaccine at the Cancer Vaccine Institute at UW Medicine. That was 17 years ago, and I am still cancer-free today. The vaccine has given me a lot of extra time with my family, and I am so grateful that I was able to participate in the trial.”

— Anita Triolo, clinical trial participant

Help redefine what's possible

You can fast-track cancer vaccines and other immune therapies for the treatment of breast, ovarian, lung, colon cancer and other solid tumor cancers by making a donation to the Cancer Vaccine Institute.