The year 2011 was surprisingly hopeful for melanoma patients and the researchers who study the most dangerous variety of skin cancer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved two new drugs to counter metastatic melanoma, and near the end of the year, there was more good news, with the formation of a $6 million “Dream Team” of scientists focused on finding novel treatment options.
This melanoma research team, which includes nearly 50 scientists, is led by Jeffrey Trent, president and research director of the Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute. Also assuming major roles are Joshua LaBaer of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, Aleksandar Sekulic of Mayo Clinic Arizona, and Waibhav “Amol” Tembe of TGen.
Jointly funding the three-year project are the increasingly well-known philanthropic program Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) and the Melanoma Research Alliance. The project seeks to develop new therapeutic candidates that act against the variant of melanoma known as BRAF wild type. BRAFwt tumors, found in half of metastatic melanoma patients, lack a particular oncogenic mutation in their BRAF gene. Some drugs, including one of those approved by the FDA last year, have exploited the BRAF mutation, but researchers have so far found less success discovering therapeutic targets in BRAFwt tumors.
“We’re focusing on that group of highly advanced patients for whom some new treatments approved by the FDA don’t work,” Trent said in the Phoenix Business Journal. “This will be the first large randomized trial in this area. This is one of the largest team efforts that’s been attempted for this type of cancer with this type of approach.”
Researchers from nearly a dozen institutions will take part in the project, including a total of 11 from TGen. Deidre Meldrum, director of Biodesign’s Center for Biosignatures Discovery Automation, will join Dr. LaBaer in representing ASU.
Dr. Trent, who directs TGen’s melanoma therapeutics laboratory, will oversee the project, which will produce models to predict whether BRAFwt tumors will be sensitive to specific drugs. For the project’s subsequent clinical trial, directed by the team’s co-leader, Patricia M. Lo Russo of the Detroit-based Karmanos Cancer Institute, those predictive models will be used to personalize the treatment choices for patients with BRAFwt metastatic melanoma.
“Our expertise in cell-based assays and proteomics hold promise for making new discoveries to advance our understanding of molecularly guided melanoma therapies and ultimately, improve patient outcomes,” said Dr. Meldrum.
“Our operation at Biodesign has developed methodology in robotics where we can do that for many genes at a time very quickly,” Dr. LaBaer said in the Business Journal. “We can test literally tens of thousands of genes at a time robotically.”
Each year some 70,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma in the United States, and about 8,000 die annually. Arizona, with the highest overall rate of skin cancer in the U.S., has a melanoma incidence far above the U.S. average.
The melanoma grant is the sixth “Dream Team” grant that SU2C has issued. One of the others, an $18 million project targeting pancreatic cancer, is also headed by a prominent Arizona researcher, Daniel Von Hoff, who is TGen’s physician in chief and director of translational research, as well as chief scientific officer for US Oncology and for Scottsdale Healthcare Research Institute.
SU2C, a program of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, was founded in 2007. Major League Baseball was the organization’s first major donor and continues to support the program. Subsequently, several television networks have provided support as well, particularly through special programs to raise funds for the Dream Team projects.
“Combining resources to compete against this disease and accelerating the pace of cancer research are twin pillars of the Stand Up To Cancer approach, and we were delighted to work with the Melanoma Research Alliance on our first grant made in collaboration with another foundation,” said Sherry Lansing, a co-founder of SU2C. “Another exciting first is having Dr. LoRusso as the first woman among SU2C’s Dream Team leaders and co-leaders.”
For more information:
“‘Dream Team’ stands up to melanoma cancer,” Arizona State University news release, 12/14/2011
“Stand Up to Cancer and Melanoma Research Alliance announce dream team,” American Association for Cancer Research news release, 12/14/2011
“TGen’s Trent to lead international study on skin cancer,” Phoenix Business Journal, 12/13/2011