Akil Merchant, MD, is a National Institutes of Health-funded physician-scientist who focuses on developing new treatments for blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma. He completed his undergraduate studies at Rice University followed by his medical school and residency at Baylor College of Medicine. Merchant went on to complete his fellowship in medical oncology at Johns Hopkins University, eventually joining the faculty there, before he was recruited to the University of Southern California in 2012. In January 2019, Merchant was recruited to Cedars-Sinai as a member of the bone marrow transplant program at the Samuel Oschin Cancer Center and to serve as director of the new mass cytometry core facility.
Merchant's research has focused on developing new treatments for patients with blood cancers. His efforts are focused on understanding how the tumor microenvironment (the immune and support cells that surround the tumor cells) is involved in resistance to therapy and how it can be targeted for therapeutic benefit. A major challenge in studying the tumor microenvironment is the lack of robust technologies that allow for the detailed characterization of immune cells, while preserving the tissue architecture and spatial relationships between cancer and immune cells. To overcome these obstacles, the Merchant Laboratory has pioneered the application of imaging mass cytometry (IMC) to study the tumor and immune microenvironments in cancer. IMC uses metal-tagged antibodies (rather than fluorochrome tags) to label proteins of interest in a tissue sample. The metal tags allow for detection of labeled material using mass cytometry and coupled with a laser ablation unit, IMC allows for the analysis of 40-plus targets in a single tissue sample. Merchant participated in the prototype development and beta testing of this technology and was a featured researcher at the commercial launch of Fluidigm's Hyperion IMC system.