Where Are They Now? Martin Rivas, PhD
When did you become interested in the study of biology? In oncology and lymphoma specifically?
I was attracted to nature from a very young age. I was curious about all animals, but whales were particularly fascinating to me. That curiosity led me to enroll in biology when I went to college, at the University of Buenos Aires. However, after taking courses in molecular biology my plans changed. What I thought would be a career in marine biology, rapidly became a career in biomedical sciences. I was amazed by what happens in the nucleus of the cells and I realized that I wanted to become a cancer researcher. I did a PhD studying breast cancer and then moved to New York to pursue postdoctoral training in the lab of Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) member, Ari Melnick. There, I learned about B cells and epigenetics. Normal B cells are quite unique in many aspects, already displaying many cancer cell features such as accelerated proliferation and decreased DNA damage response.
At what point in your career did you receive funding from the Lymphoma Research Foundation (LRF)? What kind of grant(s) did you receive?
I received funding from the LRF during my postdoctoral training at Weill Cornell. I was one of the 2015 LRF Postdoctoral Fellowship Grantees.
What scientific project did you pursue as part of your LRF research grant(s)?
With the LRF grant, I explored the role of cohesin during B cell development and lymphomagenesis. Cohesin is a ring-like complex that is present in all living cells and has a role in DNA folding. Our study on cohesin in B cells demonstrated that decreased levels of cohesin affect the normal development of B cells and predispose cells to
malignant transformation. Mechanistically, low cohesin in B cells induced a decrease in tumor suppressor genes,
making the cells more prone to malignant transformation.
How has our understanding of the development of lymphoma/CLL changed since you first started conducting your research?
We have seen major strides in lymphoma research in the last few years. In the broad field of epigenetics, several
lymphoma drivers have been discovered with targeting drugs moving quickly to clinical trials. Our own research
proposes a novel mechanism by which genes that are seldom mutated can be transcriptionally deregulated, causing lymphomas. In addition, lymphoma therapy has been revolutionized by immunotherapies with CAR-T cells.
How do your research goals to explain how lymphoma develops and progresses lead to new and more effective treatments?
Our exploration of fundamental aspects of B cell differentiation and lymphomagenesis is crucial to open new avenues for lymphoma treatment. B cell lymphomas – and indeed every cancer cell – undergo Darwinian selection to evade antitumor therapies resulting in more malignant and more difficult to treat cancers. Studies like ours, allow us to be one step ahead of that process to anticipate lymphoma progression and achieve better management of the disease.
Was the support and grant funding you received from LRF vital to advancing/dedicating your career to studying lymphoma?
The LRF Postdoctoral Fellowship Grant was vital to pursuing a lymphoma career. When I received an LRF grant in 2015, it was the last opportunity I had to apply for a postdoctoral fellowship. This award was a lifeline to my career. It boosted my confidence and enthusiasm for lymphoma research. I know quite well that I wouldn’t have been able to open my own laboratory if I had not been awarded the LRF fellowship during my postdoc.
How has your involvement with LRF evolved since receiving an early career grant?
I have always acknowledged the transformational effect that the LRF Grant had on my career, and I have encouraged junior members of the lab to apply for the same grant ever since. I have participated in LRF’s NYC Lymphoma Walks, and I have fundraised with our lab team for the LRF. I have also participated in an LRFsponsored patient outreach activity, a rare opportunity where I – a PhD without medical background – had the chance to discuss my research with lymphoma patients, the ultimate beneficiaries of my research. I have also participated in LRF’s Lymphoma Scientific Research Mentoring Program (LSRMP) as a faculty member. It is always a pleasure to contribute to LRF.
Why is LRF’s mission and focus on lymphoma-specific research and programming important? Put another way: How would the lymphoma community be impacted if there was no LRF?
The LRF occupies a unique niche that distinguishes it from all other foundations that fund hematologic malignancies research. This is very important because funds are committed specifically to lymphoma research and are not diverted to fund other cancer types. For the research community, the LRF provides a common forum that nucleates scientists, doctors, fundraisers, and lymphoma patients to work for a common cause.
You recently opened your own laboratory at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. What research or projects are you currently pursuing that you would like to share with our readers, and what does running your own lab mean to you?
My research program at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center stems from my postdoctoral work with Ari Melnick at Weill Cornell. My projects will continue to explore the role of cohesin and its regulatory partners in B-cell development and B-cell lymphomas. Being the lab head is the realization of a long-term project that started in my home country, Argentina, and for which I have worked tirelessly. It is also a joint effort from friends, family, funding agencies – including the LRF – and mentors for which I am always thankful. It is an exciting opportunity for personal and professional growth but also a high responsibility: Our work has the potential to change the world in which we live. And ultimately, it is a unique opportunity to learn something new that can improve lymphoma patients’ lives.
What are you most excited about in the field of lymphoma research today? Why?
I think we are living in a unique time for advancing lymphoma research. The amazing development of sequencing techniques in the last few decades and the integration of different data types allows us now more than ever to characterize in more detail lymphomas that were seen before as a single entity. We are getting closer and closer to the promise of personalized lymphoma treatment: the knowledge that will allow us to treat every patient with the right drug. The definition of novel molecular subtypes of lymphoma is a game changer for clinical trials and the lymphoma clinics themselves. I can only imagine the big developments in the years to come!