Zelei Yang, PhD | Meet a Scientist

Dr. Zelei Yang
Dr. Zelei Yang

Dr. Zelei Yang, of Dana Farber Cancer Institute, is a 2022 recipient of OCRA’s Mentored Investigator Grant. With her project, “Re-engaging the Anti-tumor Immune Response Against Ovarian Cancer,” Dr. Yang is investigating a potential new immune therapy for ovarian cancer, by focusing on BRD1 protein inhibitors that hold potential to trigger a person’s immune system to destroy ovarian tumor cells.

OCRA-funded scientists are breaking new ground in solving the mysteries of ovarian cancer. Make your year-end gift today to support the next major breakthrough.

What initially sparked your interest in science?

My interest in science was inspired by my dad, who has a PhD in molecular biology and works as a scientist in the agriculture field. He loves to tell me stories about scientific discoveries and shares with me the fun he has when conducting experiments at work. This is fascinating to me, and I want to be like him and always be passionate about science and the research I am doing.  

What drew you to the field of ovarian cancer research?

As a female, I am particularly interested in studying women’s cancers since there are an increasing number of females suffering from these diseases. My hope is to contribute to research that can lead to a better understanding of ovarian cancer and novel therapies for women who are suffering from this disease.

Can you explain your research project?

High-grade serous ovarian cancers consist of a complex network of tumor cells, connective tissue cells, and immune cells. Thus, it is important to generate therapies which can impact each of the cell types making up the tumor and not just tumor cells.

In recent years, scientists have developed novel immune therapies to try to engage the immune cells within a tumor against the tumor. However, these immune therapies have not worked well in ovarian cancer for unknown reasons. More effective immune therapies based on a deeper understanding of the mechanistic alterations present in immune cells in the ovarian cancer microenvironment are needed.

My project focuses on a new immune therapy which can activate multiple immune cell types to kill tumor cells. This new therapy blocks the function of a protein called BRD1 in immune cells, which drives them into a tumor-killing state. It is possible that this new therapy, which is called a BRD1 inhibitor, may be an effective immune therapy for ovarian cancer. However, little is known about what this BRD1 protein does in immune cells or ovarian cancer cells, and I am focused on obtaining a deeper understanding of the function of this protein in immune cells before this therapy can be used in the clinic.

What motivates you to persist in your research?

My lifelong goal has always been to become an independent scientist focused on studying women’s cancers, so I am always motivated to do research. I really enjoy the feeling that my work could potentially be useful in helping others.

What is your hope for the field of ovarian cancer research?

I hope there will be more awareness about ovarian cancer and better therapies to be developed for patients, since currently only limited treatments are available.         

If you had the opportunity to personally thank someone from the OCRA community who supported your work, what would you say?

Thank you for supporting this research on high-grade serous ovarian cancer! This fellowship really offers me the opportunity to get additional training in science, which helps me to get closer to my goal of becoming an independent scientist in the field of women’s cancer. I hope my work during the time of this fellowship will lead to novel findings that can eventually help ovarian cancer patients.

See more OCRA-funded research projects focused on immunotherapy.

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