Faculty Feature: Flora Momen-Heravi
Columbia University College of Dental Medicine (CDM) faculty member and investigator Fatemeh “Flora” Momen-Heravi, DDS, PhD, brings an enthusiasm to her work driven by an appreciation for cellular and molecular systems and small victories: “Biology is so complex that you get excited about even little things that you figure out in the puzzle,” she says.
One section of the puzzle that Momen-Heravi and her lab are deciphering is the immune response to head-and-neck cancer. “We try to understand how the immune system and low-grade inflammation activate some of the cancer pathways and support the tumor microenvironment in terms of metastases and tumor progression,” she says. Results from this research can be applied to develop or improve cancer treatments—immunotherapy, for example, when a patient’s own immune system is mobilized against a disease.
In a parallel project, Momen-Heravi is examining the pathogenesis of periodontitis, a serious gum disease that destroys the bone that surrounds and supports teeth. Recognizing that patients with systemic diseases such as diabetes have a higher tendency to develop periodontitis, she is working to define what links them. “We developed a method for single-cell analysis of gingival tissue and single-cell sequencing to see, in high resolution, what is the network of immune cells in the gingival microenvironment that leads to periodontitis. Interestingly, we see a connection with those inflammatory pathways to diabetes and cancer, and we are elucidating that,” she explains.
Momen-Heravi is a strong believer in team science. “Most of our projects rely on collaborations,” she says, launching into a list of colleagues within and outside of Columbia with whom she works in various capacities. She also organizes the Head & Neck Cancer Group meetings for the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center, which brings together Columbia investigators studying or treating the disease. “We present some data, brainstorm, see how to get resources in a way that can be used for the whole research community in that area.”
One notable collaboration that Momen-Heravi leads—which includes Columbia faculty in biostatistics, hematology, pathology and cell biology, and biomedical informatics and was supported by a grant from the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research—is an effort to identify biomarkers that predict which patients with head and neck cancer, or other solid tumors, will respond most favorably to immunotherapy. The biomarkers in question are exosomes: vesicles that deliver messages between cells. Momen-Heravi has been studying exosomes since she was a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School, seeking to understand their role in disease and how they might be used as targets for diagnosis and therapeutics.
“When you have a tumor, those vesicles get shed into the bloodstream. They go to the bone marrow and make a pre-metastatic niche or make another part of the body more susceptible to metastasis,” says Momen-Heravi. “We saw they are so good at delivering a message—but that was a wrong message that we wanted to prevent. We thought, ‘Can we exploit them to bring the message we want to the cells?’”
At CDM, she and her team have transformed this idea into a tool for targeted genome editing. The key is engineering exosomes so that the CRISPR-Cas editing system is delivered to specific cells—to make genetic changes in the lung, for example, for lung cancer or for head and neck cancer that has metastasized to the lung—and avoid off-target effects that standard delivery methods tend to cause. That technology, which she is in the process of patenting, could be used for not only genome editing but also other kinds of drugs and a wide range of diseases.
Momen-Heravi’s attitude toward teamwork is one facet of a generosity she practices outside work as well as within it. “When I am helping, it empowers me and makes me feel joy,” she says. “It can be teaching or talking to a friend or doing something small, but it makes me feel my best.”
In her spare time, she enjoys museums, hiking, and meditation. “And I love reading—I am an avid reader. I try to read many different books, very diverse genres. I think it gives me perspective on different things and how to navigate through difficult times or challenges.”
Born in Tehran, Iran, Momen-Heravi completed her DDS there before moving to the United States, where she turned her attention to basic science research in Boston. She completed an MPH at Harvard and then resumed her clinical education with a residency and an MS in Periodontics at CDM, while simultaneously earning a PhD from the University of Westminster.
Momen-Heravi has been an assistant professor of dental medicine at CDM since 2018. Aside from research, she dedicates time to patient care in CDM’s teaching clinics and teaches didactic courses. She actively teaches in her lab, too, and provides motivation for the students and postdocs on her team. “I always tell them that we do this as a passion, not as a job. And this is a journey, not a destiny, because anytime you find something and come to a conclusion, there are more questions that are coming. This is the excitement—the thrill of knowing things—that is driving us.”