The Power of Collaboration
“I was able to find the missing pieces to my project and the expertise that I needed.”
Collaborations between the Englander Institute for Precision Medicine (EIPM), Cornell University in Ithaca, and Cornell Tech are important to the future of precision medicine. To highlight the intellectual rewards of collaboration, we are pleased to introduce two young Ph.D. students from Cornell University who are spending significant time at the EIPM in New York City working on cutting-edge research projects.
Andrea De Micheli (left) is a visiting Ph.D. student from the laboratory of Dr. Benjamin Cosgrove at Cornell University in Ithaca. Matthew Mosquera is a visiting Ph.D. student in Dr. Ankur Singh’s lab at the Schools of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca.
Question: Please tell our readers about your research.
Matthew: The primary goal of my project is to engineer designer technologies to tackle important, unsolved questions related to immunity, cancer, and infection. At the EIPM, I am collaborating with Director Olivier Elemento, Ph.D., and developing synthetic organoids with sticky proteins to grow resistant tumors. Through matching the proteins and cells from patient tumor biopsies, I hope to develop robust organoids that permit growth of resistant prostate tumors for which no successful models exist. In addition, I am learning very high-end next generation sequencing and aspects of epigenetics by collaborating with Dr. Elemento. These techniques will likely be instrumental to the successful completion of my Ph.D.
Andrea: Our lab is interested in understanding the molecular mechanisms that regulate how muscle stem-cells repair muscle fibers using bioengineering and systems biology approaches. During my Ph.D., I developed a technology to examine the muscle stem-cell niche, the environment within our muscles where stem-cells are housed and regulated. I’m visiting the EIPM to extend my research using a technology called single-cell RNA-sequencing to study how the cells within our muscles talk to each other to orchestrate muscle regeneration.
How has your research been progressing?
Matthew: It’s been going really well! There is tremendous complementary expertise here in proteomics and bioinformatics that’s been very helpful to me. I can strategically study patient samples and design conditions for my platform technology. I am simply amazed with how prompt the EIPM is with getting high-end tools to the core facility and allow us to take the research to the next level. We have seen some exciting results lately.
I’m learning from experts in prostate cancer. The physicians especially have an interesting perspective on where the field is right now and what the need is from an engineering standpoint. It is a unique experience to be able to apply research training from Ithaca on a freshly isolated tumor biopsy. It is something that’s not possible four hours away in Ithaca. The EIPM is eliminating the physical boundaries, and bringing together one Cornell!
Andrea: The bioinformatics expertise and the access to specialized equipment has progressed my research quite a lot. As I was starting my Ph.D., many new single-cell RNA-sequencing technologies were being published which allowed scientists to investigate the genetics of single-cells within tissues. We wanted to apply this technology to study the cells within the muscle tissue, in particular muscle stem-cells, and understand how aging impairs the complex regeneration process. This type of analysis requires a set of expertise in sequencing data analysis that I was missing in Ithaca. I am glad that I’ve found collaborators here at the EIPM to assist and advise me in this work.
How will your research benefit patients?
Matthew: The aim of my collaborative organoid research is to design systems that more accurately model in a dish what exactly is happening in a patient. I anticipate the technology can answer specific questions related to tumor heterogeneity, genetic and epigenetic variabilities, and enable discovery of new therapeutics that will directly benefit patients. My perspective has changed over the last six months, and I’m more connected to patient problems. I believe the expertise gained here at Weill Cornell Medicine (WCM) will help my primary Ph.D. project on immune-engineering and continue to allow me to think outside-the-box.
Andrea: My research in Ithaca was limited to animal models. Here at WCM I can work with human muscle tissues, adapting the analysis framework that I developed for mice. I’ve been able to work with Dr. Jason Spector, a nationally-renowned board-certified plastic surgeon, and an Associate Professor of Surgery, to collect human muscle biopsies with patient consent. My objective is to understand how the aging process affects genes that are expressed by cells within muscle tissue, and why they are not being appropriately regulated. Understanding how aging affects muscle-cell gene expression is a basis for developing more targeted and personalized therapies for people with degenerative muscle diseases.
What is the value of collaboration for the wider Cornell community?
Matthew: As a bioengineering student, my philosophy is that good collaboration is the true backbone of impactful research. My PI works hard to make clinical collaboration a success, and he has done very well. Collaborations are important because they bring together complementary expertise and resources. The beauty of spending a semester at the EIPM for collaborative work is that I can walk down the hall and find an expert in prostate cancer, someone who has built their whole career around that disease. I could read all the literature in the world about the disease and I still wouldn’t get the same perspective as I would having a half hour conversation with a WCM investigator. Collaboration helps to boost research and provide a better idea of where it should go.
Cornell has so much to offer, both campuses have incredible expertise and resources. At Cornell Ithaca we develop engineering tools at multiple length scale, including microscale and nanoscale, and apply them to basic research or clinical problems. However, as with most bioengineering experiences, you can get stuck in your own bubble if you do not interface with medical school personnel. When I sit in a room with clinicians and their trainees, the first question is, ‘what’s the clinical translation of this work?’ It forces you to think differently. Here at the EIPM, I am learning CyTOF and ATAQ-sequencing, something not available in Ithaca and some of the resources at WCM are unique to the entire region.
Andrea: The research in my field is increasingly complex and requires collaborations from people in many different disciplines. For example, my project is at the intersection between stem-cell biology, tissue bioengineering, and computational biology. At the EIPM I was able to find advisors to help with sequencing data analysis that is essential to my research. While Ithaca certainly has a lot to offer, I was only able to find the missing pieces to my project and the expertise that I needed to succeed here at the EIPM.
This collaboration has also allowed me to use the Helios mass cytometer in Olivier’s lab; it’s the only one in New York City. It’s a very unique instrument that has been really helpful to my research.
Another benefit is the exposure to a clinical setting and access to patient samples. That has given me a more concrete perspective on my biomedical engineering work. In Ithaca, we do not have a research hospital and the ability to appreciate how our work can benefit patients. Each week, while I walk by patients in the corridors of NYP to collect my muscle biopsy, I am reminded how my research can impact others.
How unique are the collaborations you’re involved with here, are your colleagues imbedded with institutes like ours?
Matthew: That’s a good question. Many faculty members from Cornell Ithaca have successful collaborations with WCM. Cornell biomedical engineering has a formal summer immersion program where they send their students to get clinical exposure in New York City for a summer. However, these students are at the end of their first year and not really engaged in deep research. My main department is Mechanical Engineering, and as far as I know I’m the only one doing this. There may be students who get sent down from Ithaca for specific collaborations for a couple weeks, but I’m the only one who has come down for a whole year. From the perspective of myself and my advisor Dr. Singh it is unique, but it wasn’t difficult for me to set it up. The EIPM really made it easy for me to be here for a substantial amount of time and work with some of the best prostate cancer experts.
Andrea: From my Ph.D. class of 15-20 students, I think I am the only one who has done this. The Ph.D. experience is really unique to the student and the project. If you need expertise that’s not available where you work, it is up to you to hunt it down elsewhere. There should be no borders in science. It’s up to you to find a partner and convince them that your idea is worth pursuing. Having access WCM is definitely a privilege and has facilitated building my collaborations. We are also very lucky to be at an institution that recognizes the value of collaborations and facilitates that process.
What’s the best part of living in New York?
Matt: I’m from northern New Jersey, and I missed city life and having access to really good pizza when I’m in Ithaca. There’s a little hole-in-the-wall pizza place in this neighborhood that’s so good! And of course you can get really good sushi here, too. New York City has so much to offer, it’s inspiring.
Andrea: For me it’s access to the arts and culture, and I agree with Matt about the food! But I do miss the Wegmans supermarket in Ithaca, that’s the best.