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Zhen Fan, MD
Professor of Medicine and Cancer Biology
Department of Experimental Therapeutics
University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
- Seeking to develop novel approaches to treat and prevent breast cancer metastasis.
- Laboratory studies are conducted to test an innovative approach that "tricks" the immune system into seeing breast cancer cells as the "flu”.
- If successful, these studies may lead to a breakthrough in treatment and prevention of breast cancer recurrence and metastasis in patients.
Once breast cancer spreads to another tissue–a process called metastasis– it has become resistant to many therapies. Because of this, metastatic breast cancer is incurable. Dr. Fan is working on an innovative vaccine strategy to prevent or to treat metastatic breast cancer. This year, his team will focus on evaluating the anti-metastatic activity of this vaccine approach in laboratory studies.
Full Research Summary
Metastasis is the primary cause of breast cancer deaths. The failure of metastatic breast cancer cells to respond to therapy, including targeted cancer therapy, is a major obstacle in treatment. Stimulation of the immune system could be an effective way to reduce or even eliminate metastasis-associated breast cancer deaths. However, a weak immune response in breast cancer hampers the use of immunotherapy to treat this disease.
Dr. Fan's team is developing a unique approach to redirect the body's preexisting immunity. The plan is to “trick” the immune system into perceiving the breast cancer cells as influenza virus-infected cells, causing the immune system to launch an immune response to destroy the cancer cells. This project is strategically innovative and explores a new direction in breast cancer research: combining targeted cancer therapy with immunotherapy.
For this therapeutic model, Dr. Fan's team packages an influenza vaccine in a nano-particle that targets the HER2 protein on cancer cells. In this way, they hope to stimulate an immune response to the vaccine that will enhance the natural immunity to destroy the cancer cells.
In the coming year, the team will focus mainly on evaluating the anti-metastatic activity of their approach in a new laboratory tumor model. If successful, this approach may lead to a breakthrough in treatment and prevention of breast cancer recurrence and metastasis in patients.
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.