Moritz Binder, M.D., M.P.H.

  • Senior Associate Consultant, Hematology
  • Assistant Professor of Medicine, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science
  • Area of research: Epigenetics of hematologic malignancies

What sparked your interest in individualized medicine?

Doctors have always understood our patients as individuals and cared for them throughout their unique courses of disease, with all the uncertainties, surprises, successes and setbacks that entails. When it comes to the diseases that affect our patients, we have tended to group them together mostly by the symptoms they cause and their appearance under the light microscope.

However, in recent years, new techniques in molecular biology have allowed us to understand the molecular underpinnings of various diseases, including cancer. It has become clear that, even within a certain type of cancer, there are many molecular subtypes. Furthermore, every patient's immune system and drug metabolism may be different and may react in different ways to the treatments we use today. Consequently, there is great promise in going beyond the traditional one-size-fits-all treatments we have been using in cancer care for many years.

Advancing the understanding of cancer biology is an important step in developing novel treatments for cancer that are tailored to each individual patient and his or her unique characteristics and needs. My interest in individualized medicine is that of an internist: If the cause of a disease is known, the optimal treatment likely is to address the underlying cause rather than simply treating the symptom. In cancer, causes seem to differ from patient to patient and, in many cases, we are only beginning to understand them.

What is your focus as a Gerstner Family Career Development Award recipient?

I'm focused on developing a potential new treatment for chronic myelomonocytic leukemia, a cancer that starts in blood-forming cells of the bone marrow and invades the blood. My team's work is concerned with a molecular subtype of chronic myelomonocytic leukemia, defined by a particular genetic variant.

We know from previous studies that patients with chronic myelomonocytic leukemia frequently have changes in a gene called ASXL1. We also know that these changes overexpress important genes that make the cancer grow faster and more resistant to treatment, and that the overexpressed genes may be under the control of regulatory elements in the genome called "enhancers."

Now, I'm investigating whether targeting these enhancers can reverse the overexpression of important leukemia driver genes and overcome the adverse effect of changes to ASXL1 in chronic myelomonocytic leukemia. Treating cancer this way — by targeting enhancer-gene interactions — would be a new approach not currently pursued in the myeloid malignancies.

How will your research improve patient care?

This work is the critical next step on the path to developing individualized treatment strategies with epigenetic small molecule therapeutics that can target such enhancer-gene interactions.

Patients with ASXL1-variant chronic myelomonocytic leukemia are in dire need of safe and effective therapies, and my team's research aims to uncover a novel class of variant-specific therapeutic targets that may be exploited for therapeutic benefit.

How has the Gerstner Family Career Development Award helped advance your research?

Our previous research, along with other studies, laid the groundwork for understanding the importance of ASXL1 in chronic myelomonocytic leukemia and the role of enhancers in controlling the overexpression of important leukemia genes.

The Gerstner Family Career Development Award allows me to spend the majority of my time in the laboratory, working on a therapeutic intervention for patients with ASXL1-variant chronic myelomonocytic leukemia. The Gerstner family's support is crucial in moving my previous discovery-based research toward translation into a potential therapy that can offer patients additional options and renewed hope.

Why did you choose Mayo Clinic to explore research?

I studied quantitative methods at the Harvard School of Public Health before joining Mayo Clinic in 2014 for my internal medicine residency and fellowship training in hematology and medical oncology. In 2020, I went back to Boston for postdoctoral training in cancer epigenomics as a Mayo Clinic Scholar at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

I chose to return to Mayo to join the Center for Individualized Medicine's Epigenomics Program because of the unique collaborative environment, combining expertise in cutting-edge biomedical science and patient-centered clinical care. The opportunity to translate laboratory investigations into viable therapeutic interventions for patients that can improve both quality and quantity of life remains the strong motivation for my team's work.