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Multidisciplinary CMCO Making Strides

Breakthroughs, Breakthroughs • Spring 2024
by Emily Montemerlo


The Link Between Biology and Medicine

The term “basic” is used to describe scientific discoveries made on a fundamental level. They are essential to translational work by scientists and physician-scientists, who bridge cancer biology with clinical investigation, specifically to bring better treatments and diagnostic tools to patients.

It’s been an exciting year for basic science research at the Center for Molecular and Cellular Oncology (CMCO), says its inaugural director Markus Müschen, MD, PhD, Arthur H. and Isabel Bunker Professor of Hematology at Yale School of Medicine.

“Three of our faculty received their first federal grants and another one is currently under submission, which is a huge milestone and recognition of their impactful work. We currently have a lot of exciting research underway that could potentially benefit many patients, and our external research funding doubled over the last year, which is quite amazing,” Dr. Müschen said of the CMCO, which is one of four transdisciplinary centers at Yale Cancer Center (YCC).

Dr. Müschen joined Yale in 2020 and has grown the program to six core members and counting, along with numerous students, postdocs, and faculty mentees.

“Our center aims to support our faculty by creating an institutional infrastructure to help our junior research groups grow and build a long-term career,” Dr. Müschen said. “We do this by creating a community on multiple levels. We are fortunate to have contiguous lab space where our six resident physicians can interact not only with each other, but with other members of the Center as well, including senior and junior faculty and our physician-scientists. Mentorship is a very important part of what we do.”

The commitment to infrastructure and mentorship explains the decision to build ‘the aquarium,’ a special space in the middle of the CMCO.

At one of the monthly faculty lunches where the lab members share ideas and thoughts on current projects, there was a realization that research increasingly was becoming computational, but the center’s physician-scientists were not adequately trained to mentor their computational science trainees.

“These trainees are performing important work to support a diverse research portfolio, but most were working remotely due to the need for a dry bench space, and as a result, felt disconnected from the other lab members,” explained Dr. Müschen.

“To fix this, we underwent a building project in the middle of the lab to create a dry bench space termed ‘the aquarium.’ This allowed our trainees to be in the middle of the lab with glass around them, and to form their own group to help mentor each other. This not only created a forum where students and post-docs could interact, but it also makes us more attractive for the recruitment of future computational biologists,” Dr. Müschen said.

The computational science trainees work in each of the CMCO labs including that of Dr. Müschen (leukemia and lymphoma), David Braun, MD, PhD (kidney cancer), Jeffrey Ishizuka, MD, DPhil (melanoma), and Frederick Wilson, MD, PhD (lung cancer). The labs aim to meet the center’s overall goals to provide a home for both basic and translational research, particularly for groups that are led by physician-scientists, and to assist them on what can often be a difficult career path leading both a research group and staying active in the clinic.

Members of the CMCO hold primary appointments in medical oncology or hematology at YCC and participate in one or more YCC Clinical Research Teams (CRTs) and YCC Research Programs relevant to their laboratory research and clinical interests, promoting a collaborative environment for the better understanding of cancer biology. They are critical to YCC’s commitment to translational science.

As for the future, more growth is planned. Dr. Müschen said he is particularly excited about investing more focus in training clinical fellows in partnership with Yale Medical Oncology-Hematology Fellowship Director, Dr. Alfred Lee, MD, PhD. He also foresees more connections with physicians that are primarily in the clinic, as opposed to the physician-scientists who divide their time between the lab (80 percent) and the clinic (20 percent).

Another exciting area of focus will be maximizing the potential of treatments that are already FDA approved and being used in the clinic. For example, the CMCO has already repurposed a class of drugs used for a variety of reasons, to focus solely on blood cancer. There is also hope for a multi-center clinical trial run by Shalin Kothari, MD, YSM assistant professor of medicine (Hematology), to show that patients with blood cancer who are not currently receiving these drugs, can benefit from their use. Dr. Müschen’s personal research includes understanding of B-cell signaling mechanisms and how these mechanisms contribute to malignant transformation and development of drug-resistant leukemia and lymphoma.

While the growth of the CMCO has been significant and the research fast-paced, both the sense of community and the success of the researchers remain top priorities. The environment of mentorship and inclusivity helps build connections and provides cohesion amongst the Center’s many members, but most importantly, it makes significant contributions possible that will one day soon benefit all patients.

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