When a close family member or friend is diagnosed with breast cancer, most people can only offer support, encouragement and love. Others, however, have the opportunity to go back to their laboratories and work to find cures — such as Xiang Zhang, Ph.D., a Baylor College of Medicine researcher whose mother’s breast cancer diagnosis in 2012 inspires his work today.

“The immune system can get back to what it should be doing: killing tumor cells.”

Taking action through research

“Her battle with breast cancer left a deep impression on me,” Zhang says.  He also is acutely aware that his mother — like an estimated three-out-of-four other breast cancer patients — could face a recurrence years from now. So, Zhang is hard at work harnessing the power of the immune system to fight breast cancer. 

With early support from the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the largest funder of breast cancer research outside of the U.S. government, Zhang has had the chance to launch his research career surrounding immunotherapy with new discoveries that could provide hope for his mother and breast cancer patients.

Recently, Zhang and the team at Baylor discovered a new way to stop tumors from disabling the immune system, the body’s natural defense against disease. They found that by blocking a specific protein, the immune system can get back to what it should be doing: killing tumor cells. This approach will affect current treatments relying on the immune system, including some chemotherapies, and could impact future strategies for treating metastatic breast cancer.