Giving Thanks

By Logan Kastner, Director of Marketing and Development


We have so much to be thankful for and to celebrate this year. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, it makes sense to pause and reflect on our mission, our progress and express our gratitude to our supporters who have helped us come so far.

MRA remains committed to accelerating the pace of scientific discovery by continuing to fund translational research in the field of melanoma. Since 2007, we have fully funded nearly $68 million in research, leveraged an additional $80 million from our partners, bringing the overall funding to more than $148 million to help combat this terrible disease.
11Therapies Approved
Eight years ago, only two approved treatment options were available for patients who were diagnosed with advanced melanoma. Today, we are delighted to now have 11 approved therapies available, and MRA has provided funding to study each one of these therapies This is tremendous progress, and we hear from patients regularly who are alive thanks to these new treatments.

The impact of our funded research doesn’t stop with melanoma.

MRA-funded research has also energized the entire field of oncology. Thanks to the success of immunotherapy, targeted therapies, and combination approaches, MRA has played a fundamental role in charting a new course in cancer treatments for over 30 different varieties of tumor types.

This unprecedented rate of progress would not have happened without the incredibly generous support of our founders, donors, and partners. Unfortunately, our work is far from over. We still have segments of the patient population who are not responding to the current treatment options available. This means we have more work to do and more research to support.

Together, with your support, we can continue our mission to fund vital research bringing us closer than ever before to finding a cure. We are grateful that so many patients will now get to spend the holidays with their loved ones. Thanks to all of you who have helped us get to this point.

Research Q & A: Dr. Michael Atkins

In the latest blog series, we talked with Dr. Michael Atkins, Deputy Director of the Georgetown-Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown University, and a member of the MRA Medical Advisory Panel.

Michael Atkins

How did you get interested in melanoma and your field of research?

I had a couple of high school friends who developed melanoma, including someone who died during high school, so I was aware of the disease. In college, I developed an interest in cell biology and immunology. We knew at that time that soluble/diffusable factors could stimulate the immune system at a distance, but no one understood how it worked. I knew that I was interested in oncology because of my interest in cell biology and immunology and I wanted to be involved with patient care. As an oncologist, you’re always an important part of any patient with cancer’s medical team.

My fellowship in hematology/oncology was right around the time that Interleukin-2 (IL-2) was being investigated at the National Cancer Institute, and I got involved in a laboratory researching immunotherapy. The immunotherapy tended to work best in patients with melanoma. So, I was in the right place at the right time and things just came together.  My research interest in immunotherapy and my clinical and personal interest in melanoma intersected and led me to focus on this area.

Explain how your research is making a difference for people with melanoma.

One of the most surprising and gratifying aspects of my work has been seeing how many patients with melanoma can actually respond to immunotherapy. The identification of the immune checkpoints that dampen the immune response and subsequent successful efforts to block them and restore anti-tumor immunity with checkpoint inhibitors has revolutionized the way we treat advanced melanoma and some other cancers. I am continually impressed at how many patients have immune cells that can recognize and destroy their tumors once re-activated.

Further, our advances in melanoma immunotherapy have paved the way for similar advances in patients with all kinds of cancers, many of which we never dreamed of being responsive to the immune system.

Have there been any recent advances in treatment/your research that are particularly encouraging?

In my mind there are three important areas that the melanoma community is actively researching:

  1. Integrating immune therapy with molecularly targeted therapy. We’re looking at the impact of one treatment on the potential responsiveness of other treatments. What’s the appropriate sequence in patients with tumors bearing a BRAF mutation? Does the sequence make a difference? It’s an important practical question that physicians face every day.
  2. Recent work on checkpoint inhibitors suggests combination checkpoint inhibitors have an advantage over single agents. Studies are showing that patients are experiencing better outcomes if we target the multiple immune checkpoints simultaneously, so combination therapy has to be explored and we have to look at which combinations are most active in particular patients.
  3. Using biomarkers to make treatment recommendations. We’re trying to answer important questions, like who can respond best to combination or single agent therapy, and can you “rescue” patients given single agent after they have been given it if it doesn’t respond?

How has MRA funding helped your work?

We’re trying to better understand how other therapies, like molecularly targeted therapies, affect immune responses in the tumor microenvironment. MRA supports my research related to a clinical trial where we perform serial biopsies on patients’ tumors who are receiving BRAF inhibitor therapy. Our goal is to determine if there is an optimal time to start immune therapy after BRAF inhibitor therapy, and if giving it even makes sense.

Five years ago, median survival for patients with advanced melanoma was still 6-9 months and had remained constant for decades. When MRA stepped on the scene, there were new potential targets – like BRAF, CTLA4 and PD1– that had recently been identified. Funding from the MRA has been critical to expediting our understanding of how to optimally exploit these various targets. As a consequence, there is essentially no median survival for patients with advanced melanoma. We may have been able to get to this position eventually without the MRA, but the MRA support has enabled us to do so at practically light speed.

Partnering for Cures: How Patients Can Stop Talking and Start Doing Something

Earlier this week, more than 700 thought leaders from throughout the healthcare industry gathered in New York for FasterCures’ Partnering for Cures meeting. This annual event brings together a variety of decision-makers from across diseases who are motivated by the same mission – to reduce the time and cost of getting new therapies from discovery to patients.

JRowbottomFor many attendees, the cause is personal, as they advocate on behalf of a loved one or community. That’s the case for Jeff Rowbottom, who is a member of the MRA Board of Directors. Jeff became involved in MRA after his own diagnosis. He was invited to speak at the closing plenary during Partnering for Cures, sharing insight based on personal experience. Jeff was introduced by his own oncologist, Jedd Wolchok, from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

In his introduction, Dr. Wolchok described Jeff as the “ultimate activist patient.”

During Jeff’s talk, he offered advice to others going through a life-changing medical diagnosis:

  1. Network as much as possible. Reaching out to others –organizations, patients, doctors – helped Jeff understand and process his melanoma diagnosis. And seek out the best care. “You can learn a lot even without a Ph.D.,” says Jeff.
  2. Don’t underestimate the power of one. Jeff believes there is a role for everyone to play, regardless of how powerless they may feel. Tackling such a large issue as curing cancer can seem daunting. “Lots of people may say ‘who am I?’ to work on such a big issue,” says Jeff. “But you really never know until you try, and it’s important we all try.”
  3. Connect the dots. Time is the most precious commodity of all, and based on his own experience, Jeff believes it’s important to make connections quickly to have an impact. “You can save people’s lives by getting them to the right doctor.”

Watch Jeff’s speech here.

Immunotherapy Patient Forum: 6 Reasons to Attend

On November 7, the Melanoma Research Alliance is co-hosting a Patient Forum on Immunology with Global Resource for Advancing Cancer Education and the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer. The event will be held at the National Harbor, near Washington, DC. Online registration is open through October 30.

The Forum will cover important topics for several different cancers, including:

  • Melanoma
  • Leukemia/Lymphoma
  • Lung Cancer
  • Genitourinary Cancers

Here are six reasons to attend the Patient Forum:

  1. Hear the Latest Information. The patient forum coincides with the annual meeting for the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer, a professional meeting for the leading immunotherapists. You will hear the most up-to-date information and thinking from the leading experts.
  2. Immunotherapy is a Hot Topic for Cancer Treatment. You may have seen some of the news coverage about immunotherapy over the last couple of years. This is your opportunity to hear about the cutting-edge ways we’re using the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.
  3. Meet Other Patients. Patients from up and down the East Coast will be in attendance. You will have the opportunity to share your experience and learn about their journeys.
  4. Interact with some of the Leading Doctors. The presenters are among the leaders in the field of immunology, and they have deep expertise in caring for patients using the most up-to-date therapies. This intimate forum will provide an opportunity to ask questions and interact with some of these top doctors.
  5. Information Tailored to Your Cancer. The forum will provide a terrific overview, as well sessions for each cancer type. These break-out panels that are specific to each cancer type will provide a personalized experience for patients and caregivers.
  6. Arm Yourself with Information. You will come away with answers to important questions about treatment options, as well as some ideas for questions you may want to ask your provider. This session is designed to give patients and caregivers the latest information – and empower them to take an active part in their care.

OK, ready to go? Register today!

And if you’re still not convinced, check out the agenda to see the great speaker line up:


A Father Shares His Family’s Journey with Melanoma

By Skip Grinberg

In this guest blog post, Skip Grinberg shares his family’s experience with melanoma and his drive to advance research.

Skip Grinberg and his extended family

Skip Grinberg and his extended family

Life can occasionally throw you a sharp-breaking curveball. As a result, you may find yourself involved in issues and campaigns that you never could have anticipated. My interest in melanoma and participation with the Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA) fall into this category.

Two years ago my son, Lee, called to tell me that he had been diagnosed with melanoma that had metastasized to his brain. It was one of those phone calls you never want to receive – one that completely refocuses your life.

Lee had surgery a few days later to remove two brain tumors. After surgery he began investigating treatment options, including immunotherapy drugs, most of which were only available in clinical trials. He was fortunate to contact another melanoma patient, Jeff Rowbottom, who has been very active with MRA. With the help of Jeff and MRA, a new universe of information opened, assisting Lee in his understanding of the disease and treatment options. In December 2013, Lee entered a clinical trial – he received a combination of nivolumab and lirilumab, experimental immunotherapy drugs developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb.

As I followed Lee’s treatment, I became aware of the sharp rise in the number of melanoma cases and, in particular, the disturbing increase in diagnosis of young adults. I also became aware of the progress made in the past few years in the treatment of melanoma and the leadership role that MRA has played in funding research grants that have made these advancements possible.

In February 2014, I joined Lee at the MRA Annual Scientific Meeting in Washington. I was thoroughly impressed by the dedication of the researchers, the extent of the research being explored and its implications for the future – not only for the treatment of melanoma but also for other forms of cancer.  Although the research presentations were way over my non-scientific head, I was able to digest enough “big-picture” information so that I could explain immunotherapy to my friends and family.  The meeting also provided an opportunity to network with other melanoma patients and their families and many of the professionals working in this field. The experience further emphasized how MRA has been instrumental in the advancement of knowledge that has benefited Lee and many other patients, giving them something that had rarely existed in the world of metastatic melanoma – hope for the future.

I was very grateful and knew I had to do my part. I created a personal letter telling Lee’s story and sent it to friends and relatives, probably about 150 letters in total. The goal was twofold: to raise funds for MRA and to educate people on the seriousness of melanoma and the progress being made in its treatment. The response was overwhelming and personally very gratifying. Not only did MRA receive a significant number of contributions, but many people called to thank me for informing them about melanoma and to express support for Lee and wish him well. I am now starting to work on the second phase of my personal campaign for MRA. I am excited about it and hoping it is as successful as the first. In addition, our entire family supported #SunHatSat last Memorial Day weekend, to raise awareness about melanoma prevention. We took a photo of four generations of our family wearing hats that weekend at a family picnic.

As I said at the beginning, I never would have expected to be involved with MRA, but I am so glad I am because of the positive impact the organization is having on Lee and thousands of other patients. Our entire family is forever grateful.

Melanoma and the Problem of Drug Resistance

In 2002, researchers discovered a link between mutated BRAF genes and nearly half of all melanoma tumors. Since then, BRAF inhibitors—drugs that target mutated BRAF—have become a leading go-to weapon in the battle against melanoma. Their job is to cut off signals sent by altered BRAF that promote the rapid growth and division of cancer cells.

BRAF Inhibitors and Drug Resistance

Studies show that BRAF inhibitors shrink melanoma tumors faster and better than chemotherapy. Unfortunately, the treatment’s success is short lived. It only takes about six months for cancer cells to figure out how to use alternate pathways to grow and divide once again.

Eventually, melanoma tumors become resistant to the drug’s effects, rendering the treatment essentially useless. This is similar to how skin, ear and respiratory infections can build up resistance to certain overused antibiotics.

Another problem with BRAF inhibitors is that 20 percent of users go on to develop a different type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinomas. Although this form of skin cancer isn’t as serious as melanoma, they still require removal and treatment.

Combination Treatments for Melanoma: BRAF and MEK Inhibitors

Studies show that combining BRAF inhibitors with another targeted drug, MEK inhibitors, leads to better results.

You might be most familiar with the success of combination therapies to treat AIDS. Over the past two decades, the introduction of a triple cocktail—a combination of three gene-inhibiting drugs—has changed AIDS from being a deadly disease to making it more of a chronic, manageable condition. One goal with melanoma research is to come up with a combination drug therapy that works as well on melanoma.

How are Researchers Combating Drug Resistance?

The Melanoma Research Alliance is helping to fund many of these research projects in the hopes of finding better treatment options with improved outcomes.

  • Several ongoing clinical trials are exploring new drugs and drug combinations.
  • Other studies are looking into whether taking medications intermittently instead of daily might lower the risk of drug resistance.
  • Laboratory tests and clinical trials explore whether drug treatment should continue once cancer progresses to a certain point. Some studies suggest there may be benefits of continuing drug therapy, while other findings suggest otherwise.

Another innovative therapy now available for melanoma is immunotherapy. With this treatment, medications called immune checkpoint inhibitors stimulate the immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells more effectively.

Studies are currently looking at the effectiveness of combining immunotherapy with other treatments, such as targeted therapies. Researchers also are exploring whether it’s best to start immunotherapy early in the treatment process or after the disease progresses.

Read more about research funded by the Melanoma Research Alliance.Some of this information was presented as part of our 7th Annual Scientific Retreat, which was held in February 2015. You can read about MRA’s Scientific Retreat.

Researcher Q&A: Dr. Niroshana Anandasabapathy

In our latest research feature, we spoke with Niroshana Anandasabapathy of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who is the recipient of an MRA Young Investigator Award. Funded in collaboration with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dr. Anandasabapathy’s research is titled “Expanding immune-surveillance and immunotherapy of melanoma.” Here she explains more about her research.

Anandasabapathy, NHow did you get interested in melanoma and your field of research?

I have always been really interested in why the immune system fails to detect cancer, and I completed my PhD in cancer biology while an MD-PhD student. I am a dermatologist, so melanoma is a critical concern, and as one of our more immunogenic cancers, melanoma is a fascinating and challenging area to work in.

Explain your research and how it can make a difference to melanoma patients.

Our research is geared at developing new drugs for melanoma immunotherapy. To do this, we study how the immune system responds to cancer and how we can improve that response in new ways.

What is one thing about your research that surprised you when you first started?

I am still amazed by how effective immunotherapy is. Although conceptually we thought it would work, seeing it in place is so gratifying. In my own work I am actually amazed by how little we understand about how protective vaccines work (for example, the vaccine to smallpox). A better knowledge of known vaccines could help develop therapies to improve immunity to cancer.

How has MRA funding helped your work?

We made some very intriguing findings for how the immune system maintains tolerance to itself in the skin. We feel it is likely skin cancer in general, and melanoma in particular, that can hijack these mechanisms, and this opportunity allows us to test whether that is true. With these data in hand we can develop new drugs to combat melanoma that block these pathways.

Have there been any recent advances in your research that are particularly encouraging?

We identified a particular target for drug development I believe is extremely promising. Because a drug to this target would work very differently from current immunotherapy, it could be combined with current therapies to improve responses in the 60-70% of patients for whom current immunotherapy does not work.

What do you do when you’re not seeing patients or conducting research?

I love to cook, paint, play the piano and am often with my family. We love being outside (with sun protection on of course) and traveling when possible. But I admit I also love work. I wake up every day excited by these questions and grateful to be trying to make a difference.

Learn more about Dr. Anandasabapathy’s work and our other funded Young Investigators.