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Robert L. Ferris, MD, PhD.

Robert L. Ferris, MD, PhD, a head and neck surgical oncologist, leading expert in cancer immunotherapy and cancer center chief executive, has been named the executive director of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and UNC system chief of oncology services, effective October 1, announced UNC School of Medicine Dean Wesley Burks, MD.

Ferris comes to UNC from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), where he was the director of the Hillman Cancer Center. He succeeds Shelley Earp, MD, who served as UNC Lineberger director twice, 1997-2014 and 2018-2024. Earp announced his intent to step down as director last fall. He will continue as a faculty member of UNC School of Medicine and the cancer center, to lead his lab at UNC Lineberger, and service to external organizations, including as chair of the National Cancer Institute’s Board of Scientific Advisors.

“Bob Ferris is an exceptional cancer physician-scientist, a highly skilled health executive with deep experience leading a NCI comprehensive cancer center, and a person with a genuine passion for service to others,” said Burks, vice chancellor for medical affairs at UNC School of Medicine and CEO of UNC Health. “This blend of skills, experience and vision makes Bob the ideal person to lead our cancer center and to expand on the leadership successes of Joe Pagano, Ned Sharpless and Shelley Earp, under whose direction UNC Lineberger has become one of our country’s great cancer centers.”

The appointment marks a return to Chapel Hill for Ferris, who earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry with honors and distinction from UNC-Chapel Hill. He earned his medical degree and his PhD in immunology from Johns Hopkins Medical School, where he also completed his residency, and was chief resident, in otolaryngology / head and neck surgery.

Ferris has served as director and associate senior vice chancellor for cancer research at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center since 2017, and senior vice president for oncology programs at UPMC and associate senior vice chancellor for cancer research at the University of Pittsburgh starting in 2023. Under his leadership, UMPC Hillman’s clinical, academic and research faculty and activities were more closely aligned. This, among other things, generated a 29% increase in peer-reviewed cancer research funding ($106 million, up from $82 million) and a 53% increase in National Cancer Institute funding ($48 million, up from $31.2 million). The center also obtained or renewed three highly sought after NCI Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPORE) research grants (in head neck, skin and ovarian cancers) and multiple principal investigator grants.

Ferris has led a highly productive clinical, translational and laboratory research enterprise during his tenure at Hillman Cancer Center, which has led to the founding of two companies and the publication of more than 450 peer-reviewed scientific papers and book chapters.

He has been the principal investigator of multiple cancer immunotherapeutic trials, including several studies investigating treatment deintensification for HPV+ head and neck cancer after transoral surgery. He is the principal investigator of the Specialized Programs of Research Excellence in head and neck cancer. His translational research has generated fundamental insights into the mechanisms of anti-tumor immunity in the tumor microenvironment and tumor cell escape. His lab pioneered studies demonstrating innate and adaptive immune responses induced by cetuximab, the EGFR-specific monoclonal antibody, in head and neck cancer. The team is also investigating immunosuppressive molecules, including immune checkpoint receptors PD-1, CTLA-4, TIM-3, and LAG-3.

Ferris also had a longstanding commitment to external service. He co-chaired the NCI Steering Committee for Head and Neck Cancer and is the immediate past president of the American Head and Neck Society. He serves on the external advisory boards for MD Anderson Cancer Center, University of Pennsylvania Abramson Cancer Center and the Georgetown Lombardi Cancer Center. He also is editor-in-chief of Oral Oncology and on the editorial board for Clinical Cancer Research and Cancer Immunology Research.

About UNC Lineberger

The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center is a cancer research and treatment center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Serving patients at the N.C. Basnight Cancer Hospital, UNC Lineberger is the only public comprehensive cancer center in the state of North Carolina.

As one of only 57 National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers, UNC Lineberger was rated as exceptional – the highest category – by the National Cancer Institute. The center brings together some of the most exceptional physicians and scientists in the country to investigate and improve the prevention, early detection and treatment of cancer.

With research that spans the spectrum from the laboratory to the bedside to the community, UNC Lineberger faculty work to understand the causes of cancer at the genetic and environmental levels, to conduct groundbreaking laboratory research, and to translate findings into pioneering and innovative clinical trials.

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