Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology
Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center
Baylor College of Medicine
Tumors are not merely an aggregate of fast-growing cells. They are comprised of multiple different cell types besides cancer cells, many of which play important roles in supporting or limiting cancer progression. Among these cell types are immune cells, such as T- cells and B-cells, and endothelial cells, the cells that form the vascular system – our veins and arteries. T and B cells are important natural defenses against cancer, whereas endothelial cells can promote tumor growth by supporting the formation of blood vessels that provide oxygen and nutrients and a path for tumor cell dissemination or spread to other tissues (metastasis). Studies by Dr. Zhang and his group have found an unexpected relation between these two types of cells in breast cancer, whereby T cells seem to influence the maturation and permeability (leakiness) of the blood vessels. The lack of normal T cells results in leakier vessels, more disseminated tumor cells, and ultimately increased metastasis. In the coming year his team will further investigate this connection, identify the T cell subpopulations involved, and determine whether this relationship is connected to the normal function of T cells in recognizing antigens. Understanding the interplay between T cells and circulatory cells may provide insights into possible combinatory strategies since there are targeted therapeutic approaches for both endothelial cells and T cells. Moreover, blood vessel permeability is key to effective drug delivery, and understanding how it is regulated will be important for optimizing the efficacies of existing therapies.
Dr. Zhang is an Assistant Professor at Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center of Baylor College of Medicine. He received his PhD degree from Columbia University under the mentorship of Dr. Lawrence Chasin where he focused on the biology of mRNA splicing. He then joined Dr. Joan Massague’s laboratory at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where he began to study cancer metastasis. He made several findings using an integrative strategy combining cancer genomics and experimental metastasis approaches. He was named McNair Scholar in 2011. He is also an awardee of the K99/R00 Pathways to Independence Grant from National Cancer Institute. At Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Zhang continues to investigate biological mechanisms and therapeutic strategies of breast cancer metastasis. His long-term goals are to eradicate latent cancer cells in distant organs, and to reduce the incidence of overt-metastases.