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Jean Zhao, PhD

Professor, Cancer Biology
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Professor,Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology
Harvard Medical School
Boston, Massachusetts

Current Research

  • Seeking new strategies for the treatment of metastatic breast cancer, particularly breast cancers that have spread to the brain.

  • Laboratory studies are ongoing to test new drugs and immunotherapy combinations in sophisticated models of breast cancer metastasis.

  • The findings from this research are likely to have profound implications in advancing new treatments so urgently needed by patients with metastatic breast cancer.

Metastatic breast cancer (MBC) is an incurable, but treatable disease. New therapeutic options are urgently needed, however as these tumors are often resistant to many different drugs or only respond a short time.

One of the prevailing challenges in developing successful drugs for MBC is the lack of appropriate laboratory models that accurately mimic human disease. Dr. Zhao's team has developed pre-clinical models of MBC and breast cancer brain metastasis, a particularly devastating and difficult to treat disease.  They are using these models to test new therapeutic strategies that may ultimately be tested in clinical trials.

PTEN plays a major role in negative regulation of PI3K proteins, which, if unregulated, strongly promote tumor growth. For this reason, PTEN is sometimes called a tumor suppressor.  Drs. Zhao and Wang recently uncovered an important mechanism by which a PTEN deficiency causes breast cancers to escape the immune system, raising the possibility of combining immunotherapy with anti-PI3K drugs.

In the coming year, the research team will evaluate combined immunotherapy and PI3K-targeted therapies in laboratory models of metastatic breast cancer and identify targets that may improve or impair the effectiveness of immunotherapy on breast cancer.

The findings from this research are likely to have profound implications in advancing treatment options for patients with metastatic breast cancer.

Dr. Zhao is also collaborating on a study with BCRF investigators, Drs. Nancy Lin and Eric Winer, aimed at preventing drug resistance and breast cancer brain metastasis.


Jean Zhao is Professor of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI). Dr. Zhao’s research centers on understanding kinase signaling pathways in cancer. She has pioneered a new front in understanding signal transduction by integrating genetics and pharmacological approaches, thus changing the way we think about important problems in the targeted therapy of cancer. Specifically, she has conducted seminal work to determine distinct roles of isoforms of PI3K in the normal physiological functions and in the pathogenesis of cancer. Her work laid a foundation for the new field of targeting isoforms of PI3K in cancer and guided the design of current clinical trials of PI3K inhibitors for cancer patients. Dr. Zhao is a leader in the systems and functional approaches to targeting kinases in cancer, and has identified a number of novel oncogenic kinases and lead compounds, providing the groundwork for innovative therapeutic interventions. More recently, she is leading a major effort to establish patient-derived models of metastatic breast cancer. This work is designed to investigate the molecular and genetic basis for this disease and the mechanisms of drug resistance in order to translate fundamental preclinical findings into novel and improved therapeutic strategies for patients. Dr. Zhao’s honors and awards include Career Development Awards from NIH/NCI, V Scholar Award and Starr Foundation Award. She is a member of Committee for Women Faculty and Executive Committee for Research at DFCI, and serves as Co-Leader of the Breast Cancer Program at Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center.

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Hale Family Award

Area(s) of Focus