NYSTEM Researcher Talks Diseases in a Petri Dish and Precision Medicine

Dr. Todd Evans, Ph.D.
Weill Cornell Medicine
Associate Dean for Research
Peter I. Pressman, M.D. Professor in Surgery

In 2017, Dr. Todd Evans and his colleagues published pioneering research on their development of the first-ever human tissue platform to test drugs for colon cancer. Using a “disease in a Petri dish” model derived from stem cells, his team identified a targeted drug treatment for a common, inherited form of the disease. It also has the potential to change the future of healthcare from one-size-fits-all treatment to personalized treatment strategies.

This technique of screening existing drugs using cultivated cells with certain mutations is at the forefront of precision medicine, developing targeted treatments for patients’ individualized cases.

“What’s really exciting is that if you’re using this format, already screening FDA approved drugs, it’s ready to go off the shelf after testing, versus the labor intensive process of developing new drugs,” said Dr. Evans.

Beyond colon cancer, Dr. Evans’ lab dedicates a significant portion of its research exploring the development of specific cardiac cells that act as natural pacemakers. Through his work, Dr. Evans seeks to generate pacemaker cells from human embryonic stem cells that represent the sinoatrial node. The critical importance of the node, according to Dr. Evans, is apparent in dysfunctions that arise from aging and disease, leading to the implantation of more than 200,000 pacemakers each year. His work could eventually lead to life-saving cellular therapies. In addition to his work with sinoatrial node tissue, he’s also part of a Weill Cornell Medicine-Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center consortium pursuing clinical trials of a new treatment for sickle cell disease.

What these seemingly disparate areas of study have in common is the possibility of creating new treatments because of stem cell research – whether using the programmable cells to develop the “diseases in a dish” to screen drugs (in the short term) or further develop organoids made of human tissue that could heal or replace damaged cells (in the longer term).

“When you’re working in the stem cell field, it intersects with every aspect of human disease,” said Dr. Evans. “With a little imagination, you can see that any investment in stem cell biology has tremendous impact on biomedical research and the potential to find new therapies.”

An important investor in Dr. Evans’ lab has been New York State, through the Stem Cell Science (NYSTEM) program. Since 2008, the grants have created a network of stem cell researchers where there previously was none, and facilitated ambitious, high-reward research.

“NYSTEM allowed us to do research in areas we never would have been able to do otherwise,” Dr. Evans said.

The program has also helped his lab grow and created new jobs, with grants funding salaries for about a third of his staff. It’s also directly led to new intellectual property, with two patents filed so far.

“NYSTEM has been critically important to our work,” he said. “It’s enabled us to be more productive and competitive in this field of research, which has grown tremendously since the program was launched.”