Deploying the Patient’s Own Immune System to Prevent Cancer

Shawn Demehri, MD, PhD
Shawn Demehri, MD, PhD
Bob and Rita Davis Family MGH Research Scholar 2023-2028
Director, High Risk Skin Cancer Clinic
Physician Investigator, Cutaneous Biology Research Center and Center for Cancer Immunology
Associate Professor of Dermatology, Harvard Medical School

My research aims to establish the foundation for the field of cancer immunoprevention, which can benefit many patients at high risk of cancer development and recurrence. Ultimately, my research aims to elucidate novel strategies to deploy patient’s immune system to eliminate early malignant cells and prevent cancer.

Our lab studies the critical elements that initiate a productive immune response against early stages of cancer development. We have discovered immune factors that potently suppress early cancer development in the skin, breast and other organs.

We have taken these fundamental discoveries to clinical trials and established that topical induction of immune factors effectively eliminates pre-cancerous skin lesions and prevents skin cancer. This topical immunotherapy is now being used by dermatologists around the world to prevent and treat skin cancer.

In parallel, my team has discovered commensal viruses—viruses that live in symbiosis with the human body—as novel targets attracting the immune cells to detect and eliminate pre-malignant cells within the normal tissues. This discovery has uncovered a previously unknown beneficial role for commensal viruses in promoting human health.

We have extended our research to understand the impact of aberrant immune activation—the ability of viruses to disrupt the body’s adaptive immune response by suppressing immunity or causing the growth of pathological legions—in promoting cancer development in the context of chronic inflammation in the skin, colon, pancreas and liver.