Professor, Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, and Department of Oncology, Wayne State University School of Medicine
Dr. Wei-Zen Wei is renowned for her research on preventing breast cancer progression through immunotherapy. She and a team of researchers at Detroit’s Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute have worked on cancer-fighting vaccines since 1996 to help prevent HER2-positive breast cancer. Wei’s lab was the first in the world to develop the HER2 DNA vaccine, which was initially tested on tumor cells that no longer responded to other therapies for HER2-positive breast cancer. The results in mice showed that the nontoxic vaccine prevented the cancer from growing. The first clinical trial on humans was conducted at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, where stage IV breast cancer patients were given treatments of the HER2 DNA vaccine.
VIEW FROM THE TOP
Wei’s interest in immunotherapy as a way to treat cancer began with her graduate work. In 1987, her lab received independent funding to continue her research. She began working with vaccines in the mid-1990s. According to Wei, when cancer develops, the immune system can’t always distinguish tumor cells from normal cells, thus, “the full power of the immune system is not harnessed to fight the disease. This vaccine helps to educate the immune system so that it recognizes HER2-positive cancer cells, helps destroy them and prevents them from spreading.”
Wei joined the Michigan Cancer Foundation (now Karmanos Cancer Institute, WSU) in 1983. In 1994, she was appointed as faculty in the School of Medicine, WSU. She began working on cancer-fighting vaccines in 1996, and the first breakthrough came in 1999, when she and her team developed the HER2 DNA vaccine. She is currently the associate center director for basic sciences at the Karmanos Cancer Institute.
• Post-doctoral training, University of Connecticut Health Center and Ohio State University
• Ph.D., biology, Brown University
• Master’s degree, medical microbiology, Upstate Medical Center
• Bachelor’s degree, plant pathology, National Taiwan University
VOICE OF EXPERIENCE
Wei tells her students, who range from clinical fellows to medical Ph.D. candidates: “You need to move forward one baby step at a time and, hopefully, something will come of your hard work. Helping people should be your ultimate goal.”
– Interviewed by Jane Gleeson