Titles and Affiliations

Professor of Medicine and Cancer Biology
Department of Experimental Therapeutics

Research area

Developing novel approaches to treat and prevent HER2-positive breast cancer metastasis.


Once breast cancer spreads to other tissues in the body—a process called metastasis—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 cancer by “tricking” it into perceiving breast cancer cells as influenza virus-infected cells. If successful, this strategy may lead to a breakthrough in treatment and prevention of breast cancer recurrence and metastasis. 

Progress Thus Far

Dr. Fan has developed a nanoparticle drug delivery system that works by delivering flu protein markers to breast cancer cells to activate an immune response. He successfully showed in breast cancer models that tagging metastatic breast cancer with these flu biomarkers tricks the immune system into attacking them. Dr. Fan and his team are now optimizing and scaling the manufacturing of the nanoparticles to test the technology in clinical trials.

What’s next

Dr. Fan’s objective is to create a second-generation nanoparticle platform that specifically targets HER2-positive breast cancer. He expects this novel nanoparticle to more effectively activate the immune system than the previously tested nanoparticles, thereby exerting stronger anti-tumor activity. In addition, the novel nanoparticles are more cost-effective to produce and easier to scale up in manufacturing and production, which will significantly accelerate clinical translation of the technology to benefit 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.

BCRF Investigator Since