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Jean Zhao, PhD

Professor, Biological Chemistry & Molecular Pharmacology
Harvard Medical School
Professor, Cancer Biology, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Co-leader, Breast Cancer Program, Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center
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.

New treatments are urgently needed for patients with metastatic breast cancer. Breast cancers that have spread to the brain present a particular clinical challenge. Dr. Zhao has identified several vulnerabilities of metastatic breast cancer cells and is conducting laboratory studies to test new treatment strategies to target these weaknesses. 

Full Research Summary

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

Dr. Zhao is conducting a series of laboratory studies to identify potential therapeutic targets for metastatic breast cancer (MBS), with a special focus on breast cancers that have spread to the brain (BCBM). 

Over the last year, Dr. Zhao’s team made several key discoveries for potential targets in MBC and BCBM. One drug that targets a potent growth pathway in tumor cells stimulated the immune system in laboratory models, suggesting that this strategy could have a potent cancer-killing effect. Other strategies being tested include dual targeting of this pathway, including one drug that is currently being evaluated in glioma patients and shows excellent potential for patients with BCBM.

In the coming year, Dr. Zhao will determine the molecular mechanisms by which these treatments induce tumor cell death and enhance the anti-tumor immune response, while continuing to explore new MBC tumor vulnerabilities.

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.

Grid Researcher Headshot - Zhao

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The ANN INC. Award (a division of ascena retail group inc.)

Area(s) of Focus