19 May 2022

This year’s winner of the LEO Foundation Award in Region Americas sheds light on how patients’ immune system can be leveraged to prevent skin cancer.  

For his more than noteworthy contributions to the dermatology field, his truly exciting trajectory within skin research as well as his clinical skills, Dr. Shadmehr (Shawn) Demehri from Massachusetts General Hospital receives the LEO Foundation Award 2022 in Region Americas – worth USD 100,000. Dr. Demehri is a brilliant and exceptionally talented physician-scientist who leads a creative and accomplished research team studying the intersection between the immune system and early cancer.

“At the LEO Foundation, we are absolutely delighted to present this year’s award in Region Americas to Dr. Demehri. A stellar young investigator with an exemplary scientific track record and a unique ability to skillfully translate fundamental and rigorous findings into clinical therapies for patients,” says Peter Haahr, CEO, the LEO Foundation.

Using the body’s immune system to fight early-stage cancer 

Dr. Demehri is a cancer immunologist, dermatologist and principal investigator and holds the position of Associate Professor at the Department of Dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, USA, the MGH Cancer Center and at the Center for Cancer Immunology at MGH/Harvard Medical School.  

Dr. Demehri studies cancer immunotherapy – or immunoprevention – a strategy changing the direction of cancer care, focusing on understanding the role of the immune system in regulating the early stages of cancer development.

While immunotherapy has proven effective against several types of late-stage cancers, there have so far been few efforts to use immunotherapy against early-stage cancers. To that end, Dr. Demehri investigates the immune pathways that can prevent cancer formation in the skin and other organs and block initiating cancer from advancing into invasive disease.  

“My laboratory studies epithelial cancers, which are the most common cancer types. Our aim is to establish effective strategies for cancer prevention using the patient’s own immune system akin to vaccination against infectious diseases – potentially making a future where patients’ immune system can be leveraged to prevent cancer development and recurrence,” explains Dr. Shawn Demehri.  

To date, Dr. Demehri’s research contributions have helped establish the foundation for cancer immunoprevention in the skin and other organs, which is expected to benefit many patients at high risk of cancer development and recurrence.  

Novel mechanisms that suppress cancer in the skin and other organs 

One of Dr. Demehri’s most significant discoveries has been the determination of how an epithelium-derived cytokine – a small, secreted protein crucial in regulating the immune system – protects the skin tissues from cancer. An immunotherapeutic agent that Dr. Demehri has developed based on this discovery is now being used by dermatologists around the world to treat actinic keratosis – the most common precancer that forms on skin damaged by chronic exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. 

“This discovery, the first to show that a T cell-directed immunotherapy against a pre-malignant lesion can prevent cancer in humans, has created a bona fide paradigm for cancer prevention. My laboratory is actively expanding this field with multiple lines of discoveries in several cancers,” says Dr. Shawn Demehri. 

Dedicated to making a difference  

If you browse through Dr. Demehri’s impressive CV, one thing that stands out is his continuous work and close dialogue with patients. And when asked what has shaped and inspired his career in science so far, Dr. Demehri highlights his dedication and passion for making a difference for the patients. 

“The most important aspect of my career that has immensely contributed to the direction of my research has been the interactions with my patients. As a cutaneous oncologist who takes care of patients at high risk of developing deadly skin cancers, I have learned a lot about the core issues and questions related to living with cancer and enduring the morbidity and mortality associated with it. This experience has fueled my fundamental passion to make cancer prevention a reality for many patients at high risk for cancer development and recurrence,” says Dr. Demehri. 

Dr. Shawn Demehri

Associate Professor, Department of Dermatology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, USA

2021 – Present

Director, Program for Cancer Prevention, Cutaneous Biology Research Center, Massachusetts General Hospital

2020 – Present

Director, Center for Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the skin, Cancer Center, Massachussets General Hospital

2020 – Present 

Associate Professor, Department of Dermatology and Cancer Center, Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA

2018 – Present

Director, High Risk Skin Cancer Clinic, Department of Dermatology, Massachusetts General Hospital


Assistant Professor, Department of Dermatology and Cancer Center, Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA


Resident in dermatology, Washington University/Barnes-Jewish Hospital, St. Louis, MO 


PhD in molecular and cell biology, Washington University, St. Louis, MO

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An award that celebrates rising stars 

Dr. Demehri received the award in person during the welcome ceremony at the SID Annual Meeting in Portland, Oregon on 18 May 2022. 

“I am honored and proud to receive this prestigious award for work that my team and I are very passionate about. It certainly will stimulate me to continue the further exploration of key questions in skin research and pass on my passion for dermatology. I want to thank the LEO Foundation for supporting our work and being a strong advocate for fundamental research in dermatology,” says Dr. Demehri. 

The award was born out of the aim of advancing the understanding and treatment of skin diseases and strengthening the pipeline of excellent dermatology researchers. It recognizes promising young talents and hopefully provides a boost to their future careers. 

On the ambitions for the LEO Foundation Award, the LEO Foundation’s CEO Peter Haahr says: 

“It is important to recognize and support young research talents at an early stage in their careers. With the LEO Foundation Award, we aim to sustain their zeal and productivity and help strengthen the much-needed pipeline of excellent dermatology researchers.” 

About the award 

The LEO Foundation Award – worth USD 100,000 – recognizes outstanding young researchers and scientists from around the world whose work represents an extraordinary contribution to skin research and has the potential to pave the way for new and improved treatments for skin diseases. 

The award is given three times annually, one in each of the three regions: the Americas, EMEA and Asia-Pacific. It is granted in open competition with all award applications being evaluated by an independent and international Global Review Panel. The panel members are appointed annually by their respective dermatology societies in regions the Americas, EMEA and Asia-Pacific. 

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About the LEO Foundation 

The LEO Foundation is one of Denmark’s largest commercial foundations and an engaged majority owner of the pharmaceutical company LEO Pharma. The Foundation’s main objective is to ensure the company’s long-term development and success. 

Besides the ownership, the LEO Foundation provides philanthropic grants with the aim to support the best international research in skin diseases and make Denmark a global beacon for skin research. The Foundation has given more than EUR 110 million in grants and awards – in Denmark and all over the world.