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Zhen Fan, MD

University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
Houston, Texas

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 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 have optimized the isolation of exosomes, small capsules naturally secreted by cells, that will deliver the flu proteins.

What’s next

Dr. Fan’s objective is to create and scale up an exosome platform that specifically targets HER2-positive breast cancer. He and his team are now focusing on overcoming the challenge of loading flu proteins into their newly developed exosome-based HER2-targeting platform. They will test several ways to effectively load flu proteins that will trigger an immune response in targeted HER2-positive tumors.


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