Target Discovery and Functional Validation

The Target Discovery Team, led by Dr Erica Bello, focuses on the optimisation of complex cellular or patient-derived disease models to identify clinically relevant, high confidence targets for disease therapy. Working in collaboration with academics and clinicians in Cambridge and beyond who have expertise in specific disease areas (e.g. inflammatory bowel disease, lung development and cancer biology) and who have developed biologically relevant cell-based models, the team strive to lower the barriers associated with adoption of these complex disease models into functional genomics and drug discovery workflows. The team combine academic discovery with industry rigour to establish robust models and screening outputs that will generate commercial interest and meet end-user needs. Several projects involve working with academics outside of Cambridge as part of the NC3Rs Technologies-to-Tools programme and in educating future scientists through the School of Biological Sciences MPhil programme. The Target Discovery team also collaborate with the Computational Research team to effectively interpret and interrogate datasets and will collaborate with the new Functional Genomics Screening Laboratory team to share best practice in the development and scaling of complex in vitro models for arrayed CRISPR screens.

Discover our Research:

Team Members

Erica Bello
Head of Target Discovery Group

Rex Li
Research Associate

Thomas Dennison
Research Associate


Research Associate

Sunil Modi

Senior Research Officer

Madeleine Charlotte Jolliffe
MPhil student

Edvishkha Ajernie Dias
MPhil student



Research Collaborations

Matthias Zilbauer 
Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute

Frank McCaughan
CRUK Cambridge Centre


Selected Publications

  • Dennison T et al.
    Patient derived organoid biobank identifies epigenetic dysregulation of intestinal epithelial MHC-I as a novel mechanism in severe Crohn’s Disease.
    Gut in print (2024)

  • Edgar R et al.
    Culture associated DNA methylation changes impact on cellular function of human intestinal organoids.
    Cellular and Molecular Gastroenterololgy and Hepatology 14(6): 1295–1310 (2022)

Research Collaborations: Case Studies

Case Study: Matthias Zilbauer, Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Profiling of human gut models for identification and validation of novel targets for IBD

  • Characterisation of patient-derived mucosal organoids and iPSC derived organoids +/- inflammatory stimuli
  • Healthy vs disease, multiple gut segments
  • Extensive disease model optimisation
  • Functional assay development
  • Integration of computational research to identify key pathways/targets


Case Study: Frank McCaughan, Lung Cancer

Identification of novel epigenetic and co-transcriptional drivers of squamous lung cancer

  • Integrational of computational and experimental approaches
  • AI approaches have been used to identify new potential drugs to treat squamous lung cancer
  • Small molecules being tested in cell lines and the lung organotypic model
  • CRISPR approaches to disrupt novel targets also being deployed
  • Phenotypic and mechanistic studies



– Disease signature identification and target validation through the
Centre for Pathway Analysis

– Integration of clinical engagement early in discovery research through the CRUK Cambridge Centre


Industry Engagement and Collaboration

– Facilitate pre-clinical industry-academic collaboration across the CRUK Cambridge Centre

– Leverage industry network of the Milner Consortium


Entrepreneurship and Training

– The MTI is home to accelerator
Start Codon with a number of oncology-focused start-ups

– Oncology companies based within the MTI benefit from facilities & collaborative environment

An organoid in the sigmoid colon, a section of the large intestine. The green colour is a stem marker called LGR5, the red is a cell membrane marker called e-cadherin, and the blue is a nuclei stain called DAPI. Video by April Foster.
An organoid in the terminal ileum, a section of the small intestine. The green colour is a stem marker called LGR5, the red a cell membrane marker called e-cadherin, and the blue is a nuclei stain called DAPI. Video by April Foster.

From 2017-2022 the Milner Therapeutics Institute delivered the Onco-Innovation programme, one of 12 original foundation programmes within the CRUK Cambridge Centre. The programme was managed by Dr Rebecca Harris, and led by our director Tony Kouzarides, alongside Susan Galbraith (AstraZeneca). A key objective was to establish the Milner as a physical institute, which was accomplished when the JCBC opened in 2019. From 2022, the MTI has been elevated to an affiliated institute within the CRUK CC structure, and we look forward to continuing our close interactions across the whole Centre, working to support entrepreneurship, enable pre-clinical industry-academic collaboration and to integrate clinical engagement early in oncology target discovery research within the MTI.