Breast cancer research test

KGI Alumni Nan Jiang Pursues Cutting-Edge Breast Cancer Research While Developing Diagnostic Method

Nan Jiang, a recent graduate of Keck Graduate Institute (KGI)’s Master of Science in Translational Medicine (MSTM) program, is pursuing an emergent field in breast cancer research that holds vital implications for drug delivery and diagnostics. She is motivated by personal reasons, as she learned when she was still in high school that her mother had breast cancer. This revelation came as a shock.

“They didn’t tell me when she was first diagnosed because I was attending boarding school, and cellphones were forbidden,” Jiang, MSTM ’23.

When her father came to pick her up one Friday, he told her they were heading to the hospital for her mother’s surgery. Only then did she learn the news about her mother’s condition.

Thankfully, her mother is doing well today. However, this moment was a pivotal one. Seeing her mother and aunt cope with this condition motivated Jiang to pursue breast cancer research.

Jiang grew up in China, obtaining a joint degree in Biochemistry and Pharmacology from China Pharmaceutical University. She just completed KGI’s MSTM program, where she received the Highest Academic Performance Award at KGI’s recent awards ceremony.

Now, Jiang is pursuing her PhD. Her research focuses on extracellular vesicles (EVs), small membrane particles contributing to cancer progression and metastases by transporting biologically significant proteins and nucleic acids. They have been shown to encourage cell growth and survival, enhance tumor cell invasion, and increase tumor growth.

Additionally, they may serve as biomarkers of cancer or therapeutic targets. Although EVs were discovered in the 1970s, researchers have only recently begun to explore their role in cancer and inflammation. 

“EVs are like bubbles shielded from cells, but because they come from cell membranes, they also carry lipid structure and all the protein information,” Jiang said. “They can provide us with much information from our original cells. We can isolate them directly from the blood because they are very abundant in all kinds of biofluids. It’s a very non-invasive way to analyze them.”

Jiang is studying a set of vesicles secreted from breast cancer cells, which she hopes will provide more information involving the tumors, particularly when it comes to drug resistance. Her goal is to develop a new diagnostic method. 

“It’s a very direct way to help patients because it will help them to know in advance what treatments will be effective and ineffective,” Jiang said. “Because chemotherapy is not a comfortable treatment, it is best to avoid it if possible. Even targeted treatments like monoclonal antibodies are expensive and have side effects.”

Thus, this data could potentially enable early cancer diagnosis and determine the best course of treatment while avoiding unnecessary treatments.

So far, she has had an enriching experience at KGI.

“It’s very different from anything I’ve experienced before in education,” Jiang said.

“We have a lot of teamwork and presentations. I’m a very shy person. I never knew I could stand before my class and talk about my research for half an hour. Learning these presentation skills has been very useful.”

One professor who has particularly stood out is Dr. Animesh Ray.

“His classes are quite challenging,” Jiang said. “He covers a lot of information, moves at a fast pace, and discusses a lot of unfamiliar concepts. But he is very helpful and patient. He was always willing to answer my questions after class and explain concepts, even if he had already gone over them in class.”

She found that while not every concept related directly to her research, it broadened her scope of understanding. 

“It’s not about being an expert on every small detail but rather developing an understanding of the overall logic of how methods work,” Jiang said. “Maybe you will encounter a topic in your research, and maybe you won’t, but when you encounter something related to that topic, you can remember what you touched upon in class.”

Ray has enjoyed working with Jiang as well.

“Nan was an impressive personality in my classes,” Ray said. “I was always looking at Nan to see if she approved of what I had to say! She was the paragon of a student who keeps her teachers on their toes. All the best to Nan.”