By Laura Brockway-Lunardi, PhD
Scientific Program Director
Melanoma Research Alliance
Recently, MRA announced the results of its latest round of grant-making, enabling more than $13 million of melanoma research. The awards, which include a total of $7.6 million from MRA’s research funds and $5.7 million obtained through the organization’s collaborative funding program, will support:
- 34 projects
- 43 Principal Investigators (PIs)
- 26 academic institutions in 4 countries
With this latest round, MRA has awarded almost $68 million to 237 PIs at 99 institutions in 14 countries since its founding in 2007. These awards aim to:
- advance the understanding of melanoma risk factors
- identify new therapeutic approaches
- develop biomarkers that lead to the improvement of existing treatments
Expanding the Pool of Melanoma Researchers
One of the goals of MRA is to not only fund the best and brightest melanoma researchers but also bring new investigators into the field. We are meeting this goal: every year, at least two-thirds of awarded PIs have not received previous funding from MRA, equating to 20 to 30 new PIs per year. At least six new institutions are brought into the MRA program each year. MRA-supported Young Investigators (through Young Investigator Awards and Young Investigators on Team Science Awards) now number 56 strong, and we’re on track to fund at least 80 of these early career scientists by 2017.
Focus on Melanoma Treatment
In addition to growing human capital, this new round of awards also strengthens MRA’s emphasis on treatment science, bringing MRA’s investment to more than $60 million (or 89% of funding) to date to accelerate new tools and treatments to patients with metastatic melanoma. MRA’s research portfolio has supported studies of 48 unique therapeutic approaches, including research on all of the melanoma therapies approved since 2011. MRA’s portfolio includes 21 supported clinical trials that incorporate correlative studies of treatment response and mechanistic studies.
2015 continues the remarkable momentum in clinical advances with new drug approvals and additional agents in late-stage clinical development. Unfortunately, not all patients will benefit from these new treatment approaches and more research is needed to identify new drug targets and biomarkers. Many of our newest awards are focused on just this, and include research on new genetic and epigenetics drivers of melanoma, as well as novel approaches in immunotherapy.
In addition, improving upon currently available therapies through research on combinations of agents and biomarkers is needed to maximize the existing anti-melanoma arsenal.
One such study of combination approaches joins MRA in collaboration with the Rising Tide Foundation for Clinical Cancer Research and the Tara Miller Melanoma Foundation to support clinical and translational research on immune checkpoint blockade combined with radiation therapy through a Team Science Award led by Robert Vonderheide at the University of Pennsylvania.
Addressing Unmet Needs
The latest awards also address critical areas of unmet need, including developing new approaches to treat patients with metastases to the central nervous system (brain and meninges). For example, a Bristol-Myers Squibb-MRA Team Science Award led by Ryan Sullivan at Massachusetts General Hospital will conduct a clinical trial to study the activity of ipilimumab and nivolumab in patients with leptomeningeal metastases.
Through Established Investigator Awards, Timothy Bullock at the University of Virginia will determine if focused ultrasound technology will increase the effectiveness of immunotherapies, and Sheri Holmen at the University of Utah will study key proteins implicated in promoting brain metastases and determine targeted treatment approaches against them.
These are just a few examples of the cutting-edge research programs that comprise our most recently awarded programs, none of which would be possible without the support of our donors and partners, which include a growing list of institutions, foundations, and companies that share our common goal of defeating melanoma.
Planning for 2016 Grant Funding
As we wrap up the 2015 cycle, planning for our 2016 cycle is well underway. We hope to announce our next Request for Proposal in early September, and we anticipate another competitive pool of applicants who will continue to push forward in our quest to understand and eliminate death and suffering from melanoma.