Women in Science: Dana Mazen Zaher On Her scientific Research On Helping To Prevent Breast Cancer

Lindsay Judge   |   07-12-2020

The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Middle East Regional Young Talents Program has recognized six outstanding women in science, awarding them grants totalling up to EUR 80,000.


Aimed at empowering women in science the programme was established in 1998 with a goal of recognizing, promoting and encouraging exceptional women scientists at different stages of their careers. The Program is committed to improving the representation of women in STEM and particularly in top decision-making positions. This year, six young women have been chosen as prize winners from around the GCC. These women will use the platform to further their research which will help build a better future. We discover some of the talented ladies from the UAE who have been awarded this incredible prize and how they plan to use the platform to help them moving forward.


Young scientist Dana Mazen Zaher has dedicated her life to helping other women through her research into breast cancer treatment. More specifically, Dana’s research looks at the role of metabolic reprogramming in the sensitivity of breast cancer to chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Today, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women worldwide and is the leading cause of cancer deaths among women after lung cancer. Moreover, statistics have shown that Arab breast cancer patients including those from the UAE tend to develop this type of cancer at younger ages compared to patients of western countries. So this is truly one of the biggest issues women face today.


Dana Zaher’s research contributes to the knowledge of basic science in molecular biology and clinical application in the treatment of breast cancer. A high percentage of breast cancers is extensively metabolic, providing fuel for growth-promoting biosynthetic pathways. These cancers typically lack effective targeted therapies, and compared with other breast cancer subtypes, are more likely to recur and metastasize due to metabolic reprogramming. Through a series of studies, Dana has combined immune checkpoints inhibitors with metabolism modulators to re-sensitise resistant breast cancer cells and explore the potential synergistic mechanism.


Dana’s long-term mission as a scientist is to improve the well-being of breast cancer patients and reduce the mortality rates associated with it. She aims to reach a deeper understanding of breast cancer, which could unravel the metabolic vulnerabilities between breast cancer subtypes and stratify patients based on their metabolism profile to determine their susceptibility to a specific treatment. We discover more about her commitment to helping women who are suffering from this terrible, but worryingly common disease.


Dana Zaher



What first interested you to start your work and research related to women’s breast cancer? 

My passion for science pushed me to start research in the aim of contributing to the knowledge of basic science in molecular biology and the clinical application in the treatment of cancer. And as a PhD candidate in the molecular medicine program in the College of Medicine of the University of Sharjah, I decided to pursue my research in the field of breast cancer. It is well known that breast cancer is the most diagnosed cancer in women worldwide and some strains are still challenging to treat, so a better understanding on how to tailor each treatment to each woman would be the ultimate goal. All of this pushed me to explore a less studied mechanism in breast cancer that could be a potential target for treatment. This involves metabolic reprogramming and identifying the most effective players in this mechanism.



What more would you like to see done in the region to raise awareness of the illness? 

Every year, the United Arab Emirates is keen to spread awareness of breast cancer through numerous campaigns that provide examinations for women and urge the importance of regular screening. The periodic examination is of great importance as it aims to diagnose a cancerous tumour in its early stages, and this increases the chance of treatment by a very large percentage as there is a greater possibility to control it through the available treatments while avoiding damage to healthy tissue. I would like to encourage such campaigns to raise awareness among society with the most common types of illness and motivate people to maintain healthy lifestyles and have regular checkups.


Tell us more about what you would still like to achieve with your research? 

My long-term aim of this research is to reduce the number of deaths due to breast cancer and improve the wellbeing of patients suffering from the disease. This breakthrough would provide a deeper understanding of breast cancer, which could unravel the metabolic vulnerabilities between breast cancer subtypes and stratify patients based on their metabolism profile to determine their susceptibility to a specific treatment. A better understanding of how to tailor the treatment to each woman would provide a better quality of life, minimise the irrelevant physical and financial impact. In more details, it would avoid all caused harmful side effects from unspecific treatments, which will minimize the physical and psychological pain of a woman with breast cancer.



What does it mean to you to be part of this project with L’Oreal? 

Joining to The L’Oréal-UNESCO Fellowship was one of my goals and dreams, and I am so happy to have won this award that will support in my scientific research. The L’Oréal-UNESCO Fellowship is one of the most important and strongest programs that supports women researchers at the local and global level and being part of it gives me the motivation to conduct my research and follow my dreams in science. This breakthrough in my life will always be a marvellous achievement and special accomplishment.



Why do you think it’s important for global brands such as L’Oreal to recognise successful women such as yourself today? 

The recognition of successful women by global brands supports us and give us a special appreciation and a motive to continue what we have started with. In addition to boosting confidence and highlighting the valuable steps towards success among society. The road to success is full of obstacles and this kind of recognition would nourish this road with big achievements and accomplishments.


How will the project enable you to move forward with your work? 

The L’Oréal-UNESCO Fellowship will boost my research in all terms! The opportunity of visiting a lab whose head and members are experts in the field of mitochondrial studies and have the advanced supporting facilities would strengthen my work and promote achieving all aims of the study. This will ultimately lead to producing high-quality publications in internationally reputable journals and presenting the study in international scientific meetings and conferences. In addition, I’ll have the opportunity to connect with reputable scientists and exchange ideas with them, gaining a valuable experience in research and developing my skills and lab techniques. I’ll happily and proudly share my experience and skills with my colleagues and motivate other female scientists to pursue research for the benefit of science and the community. All of this will build my career and qualify me to conduct further impactful research.


In this issue we are celebrating UAE National Day – how does it make you feel to represent your country internationally?

As soon as I learned that I had obtained the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science, I was overwhelmed with a feeling mixed with happiness, pride and responsibility for the great value and importance of the award in the field of developing scientific research and its support for women researchers.


Growing up, what inspired you to enter into the world of science? 

Since my childhood, science has been my favourite subject. During my studies, I would always wait for science classes and laboratories to discover the secrets of science. Since my school days, I have participated in everything related to science, such as exhibitions, forums and competitions, and I still remember my participation in an animal cell model in the school fair, where biology was my favourite. I was not limited to the academic subject, I was also constantly reading about the latest developments in science and watching television programs that discuss science and medicine and everything new in this field. I also used to participate in summer scientific programs in which we apply scientific experiments and visit science museums, laboratories and drug factories.


What is a message you would like to all women who have struggled or are going through breast cancer? 

We as women in research and all women in the society feel you and stand beside you to survive this beatable struggle. You are strong enough to fight and win! Don’t give up on it and remember that treatments are improving to offer you the best option of therapy with the least side effects. keep yourself surrounded by your loved ones, eventually, your soul will nourish, and you will stand again with a stronger will and brighter smile! Don’t forget to take care of yourself, YOU ARE PRECIOUS!


What are some of the biggest challenges you face in what you do?

Among the biggest challenges is managing the time of performing experiments and achieving all goals as planned. The field of research is full of surprises and challenges along the way which requires persistence, deep thinking and creativity in finding solutions. Another challenge is accepting that as a researcher I have to go through a lot of trial and error stages to reach my ultimate goal, which teaches me patience and resoluteness. However, all of these challenges are managed simply by the passion I have for science and research.


What would you still like to achieve that you haven’t had the chance to do yet? 

There are no limits in science achievements and every single step encourages me to proceed with another step, idea, challenge and experience. I’m looking forward to having the chance to conduct more research that serves the community and helps cancer patients.


What is your fondest memory of the UAE growing up?

The family gatherings all around the UAE are so precious and the festivals and events that I used to participate in represent my happiest memories.


What is the life motto that you live by?

A dream doesn’t become reality by magic, it takes sweat, determination and hard work