From Sidewalks to Science: An On-Route Look at Komen’s Research Dr. Xiang Zhang

Opening Ceremonies

Dr. Zhang, can you tell us a bit about what led you to do breast cancer research?

 My mother was diagnosed with ER+ Stage II breast cancer in 2012. She is still undergoing treatment and luckily everything looks fine now. But as a breast cancer researcher, I know she is still at risk of recurrence, just as many other breast cancer survivors. Therefore, curing breast cancer, specifically metastatic breast cancer, has become the major focus of my research. As a co-survivor, I am committed to providing better outcomes for breast cancer patients like my mother.

On The Route

Since we’ve got some time, could you tell us a bit about your current research?

Our research is focused on a single question: How we can harness the immune system to fight breast cancer? The immune system has the ability to kill tumor cells. However, tumors have learned to “hide”  using help from  cells that “turn off” the immune system (immunosuppressive cells) allowing the tumor to survive.  In our work published in Nature Cell Biology we showed that targeting the immunosuppressive cells allows the immune system to do what it should be doing – killing tumor cells.

This approach will undoubtedly affect treatments relying on the immune system, including immunotherapies and some chemotherapies. We will continue to investigate how to target these immunosuppressive cells so that other therapies will work more efficiently. We will study how metastatic tumors differ from primary tumors in terms of recruitment of these immunosuppressive cells, helping us identify more effective strategies against metastatic breast cancer.

At Camp

Now that we’ve made it “home” for the night and are enjoying the support of our crew, can you tell us  how your work would be affected without Komen funding?

Komen research dollars were instrumental in establishing my work in immunotherapy. Komen not only funded our research, but also allowed me to assemble a team of senior scientists with the necessary expertise to advise us on the development of our research. This is tremendously important for a new lab to start in an unfamiliar field. I am very grateful and hope to continue to make contributions in this field to reward Komen’s support!

Day 2

What is the potential impact of this research for breast cancer patients?

I believe this approach can improve the ability of the immune response to defend itself against the tumor. An immune system capable of attacking tumor cells could also be effective at killing any tumor cells that have returned (recurrence) or that have spread (metastasized). To enhance anti-tumor immunity would allow us to enhance the effectiveness of several other therapies. We are investigating several different ways of achieving this goal, and working on getting one of these approaches to the clinic as soon as possible.

Cheering Station

Look at all of these enthusiastic supporters out along the route! Are you involved in any efforts related to cancer/breast cancer, outside of your lab?

Over the last four years, I have organized a breast cancer education program. The program invites breast cancer researchers at the Texas Medical Center (including Baylor College of Medicine, MD Anderson Cancer center and many other institutions) to a retreat where they present their research and receive feedback from faculty. The retreat also includes a nationally renowned keynote speaker every year.

To bring the patient voice to research, I have served as the Activity Director for the annual Metastatic Breast Cancer Conference. This nationwide conference provides a platform for patients, advocates, clinicians, and scientists to exchange ideas and discuss the most demanding needs and concerns for metastatic breast cancer patients.

Mile 59

The finish line is in sight! Can you tell us about a defining moment when you realized the impact our work has in the fight against breast cancer?

 I am so proud of our team and that we have successfully established a research program and developed interdisciplinary expertise which can be quite the challenge. We have worked to know a lot about breast cancer cells themselves. Now we also know something about the “good” and “bad” immune cells that have made their way inside the tumors. The combination of this knowledge has greatly broadened our research scope and revealed several new opportunities. We have seen dramatic effects of the immune system on tumor progression. In some of our experiments, an unleashed immune system can sometimes completely eradicate an aggressive breast tumor. If this effect can also be realized in patients, it would vastly accelerate our progress of curing breast cancer.

Dr. Zhang and his mom at Yellowstone in 2013, one year after her diagnosis and surgery.

Closing Ceremonies

Thanks for walking us through your research, Dr. Zhang! Any final thoughts you’d like to share with our walkers, crew and supporters?

 We are in the process of understanding how the rest of breast cancers resist or become resistant to current therapies. We believe we have some promising findings and hopefully in the near future we will be able to address this question for all patients.

As a co-survivor, I remember the side effects of my mother’s treatment. Conversations with advocates have opened my eyes to the real needs and hopes for patients, which should always be our top priority in pre-clinical research. These interactions help me gauge the importance of our findings and help us decide the right direction.

Dr. Xiang Zhang is an Assistant Professor at the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor College of Medicine. Since 1982, Susan G. Komen has funded $920 million in breast cancer research, second only to the U.S. government and more than any other nonprofit in the world. Learn more here.

Dr. Zhang was also featured in our April blog post Behind the Science.

Dr. Zhang meets with patient advocates Susan Rafte and Josh Newby at the Annual SABCS meeting.

Pit Stop 

Three things to know about Dr. Zhang:

  1. My mom is excited that my research can reach a broader advocacy audience and would like to express her gratefulness to Komen.
  2. Both of my maternal grandparents were biomedical scientists. I lived with them throughout my childhood due to my parents’ busy working schedules. They deeply influenced me and stimulated my interest in science. They also encouraged me to come to the US to pursue my science dream. They both passed away five years ago, but will be forever live in my heart.
  3. Although my wife, Iris Zhang, is not a scientist, she has always been a fan of scientists. She attended my seminars whenever she could and helped me prepare my talks. She takes great care of our family while I work hard in the lab. Her support is instrumental to my research career!

Hooray! Promotion Extension!

Filing taxes is never fun, and it can take a lot out of you. So, if you need a little pick-me-up after all that math and mailing and online double checking, we have a special surprise coming this week.

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Our “Bring Your Bestie” and VIP Slumber Party promotions were set to end on April 19th, but to show our love and support for all our 3-Dayers…we are extending the promotions until April 26th! Hooray!

This means you have a six more days to take advantage of our two awesome promotions for the month. If you need another breakdown of each promotion, we have you covered there as well.

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“Bring Your Bestie”  

Recruit your friends to walk with you this year! We’ll provide a round-trip plane ticket for any out-of-town first-time walker who registers by April 26 with the code BYB17. We want to give new participants the chance to see the 3-Day magic for the first time, especially if they can do so alongside their BFFs. Send your friends to The3Day.org/Bestie to learn more, and help them sign up. This is perfect for long-distance friends who want an extra excuse to get together to walk 60 miles for a great cause.

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The VIP Slumber Party Promotion

2017 is the 15-year anniversary of the Susan G. Komen 3-Day, so one promotion wasn’t enough! We wanted to share another opportunity with you all to really get our celebration going! When you recruit two pals, you can get the VIP glamping treatment. If you recruit two first-time walkers by April 26 to join you on the 3-Day, we’ll arrange for you to have a VIP slumber party together on the event. That slumber party will include the use of a large tent that sleeps up to four people, with air mattresses and pillows, plus phone chargers, camp chairs and souvenir 3-Day pajama pants to take home for each member of your party. Talk about a party!

If you don’t want to stay at camp, you can choose a reward of two free nights at a 3-Day host hotel for the Friday and Saturday of the event, instead of the slumber party.

To get your friends on board, first get your personal recruitment link and ID, then help them register. Get all the info at The3Day.org/Refer.

Just make sure you get moving by April 26! Have you already taken advantage of these promotions? Share your story in the comments or on social media and tag #The3Day

Let’s Talk About Glamping

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Did you know that people have been glamping for centuries? Although the word itself didn’t enter our vocabulary until around 2000, the first noted example of “glamping” was in the sixteenth century, when the Scottish Earl of Atholl prepared a marvelous experience in the Highlands for the visiting King James V and his mother. The Duke raised lavish tents and filled them with all the provisions of his own home palace.

Well, if it’s good enough for a monarch, then it’s certainly good enough for our 3-Dayers!

For the two nights you spend with us on the 3-Day, we like to think we take camping up a notch. Yes, you will be sleeping in our signature pink tents, but there is so much more to our glamping lifestyle than that! You will also experience the excitement of being surrounded by hundreds of your 3-Day friends, the fun of our activities to help you stay fresh and ready for the next day of walking, and of course, the deliciousness of our breakfast and dinner feasts.

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We also recommend that everyone stop at our special Remembrance Tent, where you can take a moment to reflect on those for whom you walk. It’s a more somber and emotional spot in our 3-Day camp, but certainly one that helps keep many 3-Dayers find new strength and motivation throughout the three days.

There is also the 3-Day Lounge with special treats and drinks, plus spots to spend some quiet time with a magazine and a comfy chair, take a picture with friends, and check the 3-Day Post Office to see if you’ve received mail from a loved one at home and pick up a Sweet Treat if a kind supporter treated you.

This all sounds pretty great, right?

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If you want to take it up another notch this year, we also have a special opportunity for a truly VIP Slumber Party experience at our 3-Day camp.

If you recruit two first-time 3-Day walkers by April 19, we’ll arrange for you to have a VIP slumber party together on the event. What will that include? You will have a glamorous large tent that sleeps up to four people, complete with air mattresses and pillows. Add in phone chargers and camp chairs, and you’ve got a pretty cozy set-up! Still not enough? You’ll also receive souvenir pajama pants to take home for each member of your party (up to 4). Check out The3Day.org/Refer for all the details.

If you don’t want to stay at camp, you can choose a reward of two free nights at a 3-Day host hotel for the Friday and Saturday of the event, instead of the slumber party.

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Bonus! If the first-time walkers you are recruiting also live outside one of our 3-Day markets, they’ll get a free plane ticket,if they register by April 19 with discount code BYB17. Visit The3Day.org/Bestie for more information about that offer.

Glamping just received an upgrade. What are you waiting for?

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