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Zhen Fan, MD
Professor of Medicine and Cancer Biology
Department of Experimental Therapeutics
University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
Goal: To develop novel approaches to treat and prevent breast cancer metastasis.
Impact: Dr. Fan is investigating a new approach to treatment in which the immune system is “tricked” into perceiving breast cancer cells as influenza virus-infected cells, causing the immune system to launch an immune response to destroy them. If successful, this strategy may lead to a breakthrough in treatment and prevention of breast cancer recurrence and metastasis.
What’s next: Efforts this year are primarily focused on testing this approach in laboratory models of HER2-positive breast cancer.
Once breast cancer has spread to other tissues—a process called metastasis—it has become resistant to many therapies. Stimulating the immune system would be an effective way to reduce or even eliminate metastasis-associated breast cancer deaths. Dr. Fan is studying one such approach that may trigger the immune system to launch an immune response to destroy breast cancer cells.
Full Research Summary
Research goal: Identifying innovative new approaches to treat and prevent the spread of breast cancer.
Impact: Once breast cancer metastasizes to other tissues in the body, it has become resistant to many therapies and is incurable. Lack of response to current standard of care, including novel targeted cancer therapy, is the primary cause of deaths from breast cancer. While immunotherapy is reshaping current cancer treatment paradigms, a weak immune response in breast cancer hampers the use of it to treat this disease.
To address this challenge, Dr. Fan is investigating a way to prompt the body’s natural immunity to launch an immune response to destroy the cancer cells. This approach could reduce or even eliminate metastasis-associated breast cancer deaths.
Current investigation: He and his team are testing a strategy that “tricks” the immune system into perceiving breast cancer cells as influenza virus-infected cells, which would stimulate the immune system to attack the cancer cells. Current work is focused on testing treatment for HER2-positive breast cancer in laboratory models.
What he’s learned so far: Dr. Fan and his team have successfully developed the tools they need to test their strategy in breast cancer models.
What’s next: Dr. Fan and his colleagues will test their novel therapeutic approach to improve trastuzumab-based therapy for metastatic HER2-positive breast cancer.
Zhen Fan was awarded his medical degree in 1985 from the Medical School of Shanghai Medical University, one of China’s most prestigious medical schools, and completed additional graduate studies there in 1988. His medical residency and oncology research training were at Zhong Shan Hospital of Shanghai Medical University. In 1991, he joined Dr. John Mendelsohn's laboratory as a post-doctoral research fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and focused on studies of targeting the epidermal growth factor receptor as an approach for cancer therapy. From 1994 to 1995, he was a Research Associate in the Program of Molecular Pharmacology and Therapeutics, Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research; in 1996, he joined the Memorial Sloan Kettering faculty as an Assistant Molecular Biologist in the Department of Medicine. In late 1996, Dr. Fan moved to Houston and joined the faculty of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, starting as a tenure-track assistant professor. He is currently professor of medicine and cancer biology in the Department of Experimental Therapeutics in the Division of Cancer Medicine at MD Anderson, where he directs an independent laboratory focused on research for better understanding of cancer cell signaling and metabolism and for development of new technologies of antibody engineering and therapeutics. Dr. Fan has made considerable contributions to our understanding of regulation of cancer cell signaling in breast cancer, aimed at identifying novel targets for innovative breast cancer treatment. His research has been funded by multiple federal, state, and private sources.