A Conversation with Dr. M. Laura Martin

M. Laura Martin, Ph.D. was recently promoted to the Core Leadership Team at the Englander Institute for Precision Medicine (EIPM) as Ex Vivo Models Director. In this new capacity she will lead efforts in the utilization of patient derived models of cancer, studying the functional impact of genetic and epigenetic alterations in preclinical models, and investigating the potential to translate these findings to clinical relevance.

Laura will also focus in the expansion of the ex-vivo model program, with a particular interest in generating models from non-cancer disease groups, improve the rate of successful model development, and increased applications for which ex-vivo models are used for research across the campus.

We hope you enjoy learning more about the newest member of our leadership team.


Can you tell me about your background and research interests?

I earned my Ph.D. in Spain where I studied cancer research, primarily anti-tumor therapy. Based on that experience I decided to come to the United States to continue my research. I was very interested in radiation therapy for colorectal cancer, which exposed me for the first time to organoid technology.

During this time I was following the work of Hans Clevers on organoids from intestinal disease at the Hubrecht Institute at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands. Since I was working on intestinal diseases it seemed to me like the logical way to proceed to get the answers we needed to advance the research.

I then started following all of the Twitter discussions about organoids in the United States, and learned about the important organoid work happening at Weill Cornell Medicine in general and at the Englander Institute for Precision Medicine in particular. The wide range of tumor organoids available for research at WCM and the Tri-I was just amazing to me, I knew this is where I wanted to be. Since I strongly believe that organoids were a model that all cancer researchers should have access to, and I really wanted to facilitate this access more broadly.

Congratulations on your new promotion to Ex Vivo Models Director. What do you want to accomplish in this new role?

I really enjoy working with EIPM Director Olivier Elemento, Ph.D., and I share his vision for creating collaborations, helping to mentor and open doors for young scientists, and initiating partnerships with new organizations and departments that move science forward.

To me, science works best when it’s a team initiative that builds on the skills of a range of experts.

EIPM Organoids Team, from left M. Laura Martin, Cynthia Cheung, Adriana Irizarri, Danielle Bulaon, Anastasia Tsomides

Are you more interested in working with organoids for precision medicine research or for a specific clinical application?

Both, actually. At the EIPM we have the opportunity to create excellent research programs that advance precision medicine research and for clinical purposes.

Organoids are a wonderful 3D model of tumor cells, they are a much better model to work with than 2D cells because they recapitulate the tumor of origin better. Using this model for co-clinical trials, you can test many drugs at the same time on an individual patient’s tumor.  This way you can really personalize a particular patient’s clinical trials.

There is a lot of literature out now on organoid drug screenings that show they actually recapitulate the response of the tumor of origin, so the next step is trying to optimize the technology in a way where you can grow the organoid quickly enough for the results to be actionable for a patient. We are setting up a high throughput drug screening system that we will use for this purpose.

Beyond cancer, what other diseases and conditions can be studied with organoids?

Organoids hold a lot of potential to benefit the study of infectious diseases, especially infected lung and intestinal tissue. We are starting a new collaboration with an organization now to study how organoids can benefit lupus and kidney disease.

Olivier and I envision working with induced pluripotent stem cells, but that’s more of a long-term goal. I believe we can use organoids to grow heart tissue to study medications that can prevent heart attacks, for example.

The other day I attended a lecture at WCM where they want to grow thymus organoids to produce naive T-Cells that can be used to study a range of other diseases and conditions.

How unique is the research being conducted here on organoids compared to what other academic research organizations are doing?

We have the unique ability to grow organoids from different types of tumors in a standardized way. Each tumor type has its own unique recipe to optimize growth and successfully grow a range of organoids. Other organizations tend to focus on one kind of tissue, which is beneficial because that adds to the biobank of information on each kind of specific tumor. But what we can offer to the scientific community is broad information on more than 50 organoid lines comprising 11 different types of tumor.

Another unique aspect of our work is the development of models that represent patient diversity and improve the delivery of personalized medicine for underrepresented communities. We are working with Drs. Lisa Newman and Melissa Davis (left) and collaborating with NewYork-Presbyterian partner hospitals in Brooklyn and Queens to receive their samples and grow those organoids. We hope to have more to report on this soon.

In a very exciting development, the EIPM recently joined the Human Cancer Models Initiative (HCMI) and will become one of four Cancer Model Development Centers (CMDCs) in the United States. The HCMI is a collaborative international consortium that is generating novel, next-generation, tumor-derived models annotated with genomic and clinical data.

It’s a great honor to be asked to join the HCMI and we are committed to doing our part to share the knowledge we’ve developed with other researchers in the hope of accelerating science and speeding cures to patients.

What are some of the obstacles holding back research in the field?

The technology is beginning to become well-established, you can grow organoids from almost any tissue now. We are still working on some of the more challenging tumors. The next step is to take the organoid technology to the next level; trying to incorporate components of the microenvironment that will make them more amenable to other therapies, like immune checkpoint therapies that right now you cannot test on the organoids because they’re only tumor epithelial cells.

What other fields of research at WCM are you eager to collaborate with?

Since my background is in intestinal organoids, I’m very interested in partnering with WCM colleagues working on inflammatory bowel disease. I think they might really benefit from our technology.

It’s been very rewarding to meet all the WCM researchers and physicians who are interested in organoid technology, I am looking forward to developing these collaborations and establishing many more.

The field is so full of potential that there’s no limit to what we can contribute to basic science and ultimately to our patients, and that’s really exciting!

# # #