As a cancer physician and researcher, Dr. Nora Disis understands how eager patients are to see promising discoveries in science labs realized as treatments in the doctor's office. Disis' research is in an area of vital concern to breast and ovarian cancer survivors: keeping the cancer from returning. Disis and her team are working on vaccine and cellular therapies to prevent cancer recurrences.
Disis has been on this quest from her early days in the laboratory. She started off seeking basic knowledge about how the body fights cancer when it first appears and how the body's disease-fighting systems stop cancer from re-appearing years later. Understanding the body's natural defenses against cancer cells would be critical to designing a vaccine against breast cancer. Such a vaccine seemed far in the future.
With persistence her research team developed several targeted cancer therapies. After more than a decade of laboratory and animal testing, Disis and her clinical research team are conducting experimental trials to see if candidate vaccines prevent reoccurrences in patients whose breast and ovarian cancer had been successfully treated.
Beyond her own laboratory and clinical research, Disis leads a major initiative to help many other biomedical scientists bring their research discoveries to fruition as practical medical applications.
From idea to reality
Disis heads the federally funded Institute of Translational Health Sciences, which provides support, training and resources for research to improve people's health and ameliorate disease. The institute assists researchers at every step, from testing a new idea in a lab all the way to major clinical trials. If the innovative approach is proven to be safe, effective and feasible, it is then applied in health care, and may become a standard method for health-care professionals. The development and testing of an idea from concept to community practice is what is meant by translational research.
The institute is part of a national consortium and a collaboration among several local research institutions in Seattle, as well as research centers in other parts of Washington, and in Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. Reflecting the open, cooperative leadership style of Disis and the other principal investigators, it brings into the circle individual scientists, universities and colleges, industry, non-profit and government agencies, practice-based research networks and the wider community. To assure that research is scientifically rigorous and in line with ethical, social and legal standards, the institute has centers for informatics, statistics, scientific review, community outreach, evaluation, pre-clinical research development, regulatory support and bioethics, research education and research technologies.
Making the world a better place
As a kid growing up outside of Chicago, Disis liked to figure out how things worked. "I was interested in science and wanted to be an astronomer, archeologist or physician. Physician won," she said.
She attended a Catholic all-girls high school, which she said made a huge difference in her career. Girls at the school learned to be capable and felt free to excel in academics, sports and politics. The example of her teachers, most of them women in the Dominican order, taught Disis to do everything to the best of her ability.
"I wanted to be sure, at the end of the day, that the career I chose would make the world a better place," she said.
After medical school at the University of Nebraska and residency training at the University of Illinois, Disis moved to Seattle for a cancer fellowship at UW Medical Center and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute. Most of her time was spent caring for women with breast cancer. She said she had great clinical mentor: Dr. Bob Livingston, who is now at the University of Arizona. He taught her the art as well as the science of cancer care.
Disis continues to want to learn from the knowledge and skills of the variety of people with whom she comes in contact.
"I'm always looking for people who do things better, faster, and smarter than me, and I try to learn from them," she said. "I think as soon as you can't find people to learn from, it's time to hang it up."
Dr. Mary "Nora" Disis is a UW professor of medicine in the Division of Oncology and a member of the Tumor Vaccine Group in the Center for Translational Medicine in Women's Health. She is the overall principal investigator for the Institute for Translational Health Sciences, funded by the National Center for Research Resources of the National Institutes of Health.