Professor and Chairman,
Department of Radiation Oncology
Weill Cornell Medical College
New York, New York
Harnessing the patient’s own immune system against his or her established cancer has proven to be a successful strategy at least in some patients. Within the last five years, several antibodies blocking critical “checkpoints” that control the activation of T cells, the immune cells able to kill cancer cells, have been approved for use in patients with melanoma and lung cancer. Until now less success has been achieved in breast cancer, probably because when most tumors are diagnosed, the tumor has already established a strong immunosuppressive microenvironment. Drs. Formenti and Demaria have achieved promising results by blocking multiple immune inhibitory targets in combination with radiation therapy in laboratory models. However, only a small proportion of the experimental tumors are completely eradicated. It has become evident that a broadly successful immunotherapy for breast cancer requires a concerted immunization strategy, based on a combinatorial approach designed to overcome the existing immunosuppressive microenvironment of the breast tumor. Drs. Formenti and Demaria believe this strategy has the potential to unleash powerful anti-tumor responses and improve the outcome of metastatic breast cancer.The long-term goal of their BCRF research is to optimize the use of radiotherapy to “immunize” patients against their own breast cancer by understanding the mechanism of resistance and defining the best interventions to achieve success. They will test ways to specifically target the tumor site and avoid the serious side effects associated with systemic immune activation.
After fifteen years as the Sandra and Edward H. Meyer Professor and Chairman of the Department of Radiation Oncology at NYU, in 2015 Dr. Formenti moved to Weill Cornell Medical College to become Chairman of the Department of Radiation Oncology.
A native of Milan, Italy, she graduated medical school and did medical oncology training at the Università degli Studi (summa cum laude), before going to University of Souther California (USC) to work in the laboratory of Dr. Malcolm Mitchell in cancer immunology. After an ACS fellowship in AIDS and lymphoma, she completed a residency in radiation oncology at USC.
A prolific researcher (greater than 150 publications), Dr. Formenti has pioneered the use of concurrent chemo-radiation in locally advanced breast cancer (LABC). Her research has been consistently funded by NIH, ACS, BCRF and Komen, and culminated in 2005 with a Center of Excellence Award from the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program to study the biology and outcome of international LABC (Mexico, India, and S. Africa).
Inspired by clinical observations, Dr. Formenti has demonstrated in preclinical models how ionizing radiation can result in immunogenic cell death, converting the primary tumor into an individual in vivo vaccine. Another research focus is reducing late cardiovascular toxicity of breast cancer radiotherapy with a prone technique that excludes heart and lung. Recognized by high impact journals like JAMA and NEJM, her research has resulted in a US patent and a CME course offered since 2007, with wide international outreach and training.