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!

Meet Jen B., a Preventative Mastectomy 3-Day Walker

Jen Besserman first learned about the Susan G. Komen 3-Day via her boyfriend’s mother, Karen. Karen has walked in 24 different 3-Day events for the past 15 years, but Jen’s connection to the fight to end breast cancer goes deeper. “My grandmother is a breast and ovarian cancer survivor, and she just turned 88. A few years ago, my mom found out she and my grandmother were BRCA1+, and last year I found out that I too share the gene,” said Jen.

Jen wasn’t surprised, as she had a feeling she might have it. “Right when I found out, I called my mom and dad and they were more upset than I was. I told them everything would be fine. I didn’t really think too much about it until I met with my genetic counselor and learned more about the gene.” After meeting with her genetic counselor, Jen did the difficult task of putting her emotions aside, and looked at the facts presented to her by her doctors. “The fact was that I had an 86% chance of getting breast cancer and if I chose to have preventative surgery, that risk would go down to under 5%. Those numbers alone sold me on the surgery…and I met incredible surgeons so it was a win-win for me. It also helped that I lived close to the mecca of plastic surgery, Beverly Hills. This made my decision easier as well,” she said.

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Jen’s mom Susan knew about her BRCA gene mutation for nine years, but hadn’t thought about a double mastectomy before. While she had opted to have an oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries), Jen said once she had made up her mind about her surgery, she called her mom and said, “Why haven’t you done this? It lowers our risk 95%. It’s a no brainer!”

Once Jen’s mom knew more about the surgery, she realized it made sense for her, too – so she opted to move forward, and chose to do it before Jen so that she could tell Jen what to expect. Susan is a professional baker and candy maker for her company “Susie’s Sweet Shoppe” in New York, and according to her daughter, has the “most positive attitude – all the time.” While there were no decisions made lightly about both Jen and Susie’s treatments, they found the process brought them together. “We are close and I feel that this surgery brought us even closer, not just because she flew in from New York and stayed with me in Santa Monica for four weeks to take care of me, but because we now have this bond.”

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Susan will be flying from New York to walk the San Diego 3-Day with Jen. Jen is a graphic designer at an advertising agency in Santa Monica, and her hobbies are painting, riding her bike along the beach path, anything related to music, and being surrounded by friends and family. Her fundraising efforts have been successful so far, and Jen is at 87% of the way to her goal. “On my one- year anniversary of my preventative double mastectomy in February, I shared a post on social media and let my friends and family know that I will be participating in the walk in November. Everyone has been very generous.”

What made Jen want to walk, besides her own personal connection to the cause? “Well, I like to try anything once. You never know if you will like or dislike something until you try it! I had the pleasure of witnessing the Closing Ceremony this year and the speeches almost brought me to tears and motivated me to participate next year. Plus half of the walk is by the beach, so the beautiful view will hopefully distract you from your sore muscles,” she laughs.

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“When I showed up to the 3-Day a few months ago, I knew immediately that I wanted to be involved. The energy and camaraderie that I walked into was incredible. I can’t wait to officially walk in November.” And we can’t wait to have you and your mother join us, Jen; and we’re grateful to you and others like you for so bravely sharing your story, and being a part of the fight.

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I Carry Your Heart on the 3-Day

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Happy New Year and welcome to 2017!

As we start another year of walking, fundraising and fighting breast cancer, it’s important to take this transitional time to look back—and look forward.

Last year, we had more than 6,500 walkers and 1,800 crew members at our seven walks. We had countless first-time walkers and even more returning veterans who walked 60 miles in sun and rain, up hills and through city streets.

All of this, every step and night spent in a pink tent, all is going towards a common purpose. It’s all adding up to one huge impact that will help Komen reach their Bold Goal: to reduce the current number of breast cancer deaths by 50% in the U.S. by 2026.

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It’s important to always keep that goal in mind. It’s also important to keep those affected by breast cancer in your hearts. Survivors, families, friends, and especially those who have been lost.

A few years ago, we created a video of walkers who took part in the 3-Day in memory of a loved one lost. They carry the memory of those people in their hearts. They told us their stories, and read passages from the famous E.E. Cummings poem, [i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]. It’s a powerful message to never forget why we walk.

 

I know I personally am honored to be the 3-Day’s Senior Social Media Coordinator this year! I am new to the 3-Day team, but I am thrilled to be working with such an amazing community. Your dedication, positive attitude and support of each other are at the heart of our cause. Each and every one of you are the reason I love my job!

I am looking forward to getting to know and connecting with all of you throughout this season and whole year. Whether this is your first walk or you are a seasoned veteran, I am here to answer your questions, help you achieve your fundraising goals, and share all your accomplishments with our online community. Follow along with our social media channels on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and YouTube to catch all our great posts leading up to, during and after the 3-Day!

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Until I can meet you at one of the upcoming 2017 3-Days, I know you all will be carrying love in your hearts, just as I carry it in mine. You will be carrying the love of those who walk alongside you, who walked before you, and in whose memory you walk.

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in

my heart)i am never without it(anywhere

i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done

by only me is your doing,my darling)

                                                      i fear

no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want

no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)

and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant

and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

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