Taking a Closer Look at MRA’s Recent Grant Funding

By Laura Brockway-Lunardi, PhDLaura Brockway Lunardi
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.

Sports Authority Helps to Shine Some Light on Melanoma

By Jennifer Engel

Development Manager, Foundations and Campaigns

In recognition of Melanoma Awareness Month in May, Sports Authority deployed its fifth in-store donation and consumer awareness campaign to raise money for MRA’s research program and to educate customers on ways to reduce their risk of melanoma. Throughout the month, shoppers had the opportunity to round their purchase total up to the nearest dollar, with the remaining cents going directly toward melanoma research.

In just 31 days, Sports Authority customers at approximately 460 stores in the United States and Puerto Rico raised an incredible $278,000, which brings the retail chain’s total fundraising over five years to nearly $1.2 million to support melanoma research. Stores also housed important educational information about the risks associated with melanoma and recommendations on how patrons can protect their skin.

As one of the largest nationwide sporting goods retail chains, Sports Authority is in a unique position to raise the profile of MRA and its mission while encouraging the sale and use of sunscreen and sun-protective clothing.

We at MRA are thankful for the hard work of the Sports Authority leadership and corporate team as well as the store managers and cashiers across the nation who are the drivers of the campaign’s success. Engaging consumers—especially those drawn to active, outdoor lifestyles and recreation—in understanding the real dangers of melanoma and soliciting their support in the cause are essential to preventing new cases of melanoma.

The Sports Authority campaign is one of several MRA corporate fundraising programs in 2015. Through our alliances with companies, we’re able to amplify our reach to broader audiences with messages about the sun’s damaging rays, the importance of daily sunscreen use, and the need to be aware of changes in one’s skin.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released data about melanoma, and melanoma rates are expected to continue to rise. The need for awareness, prevention, and research to learn more about this disease is urgent.

Thanks to collaborations with partners like Sports Authority, and the support of our founders, MRA can continue to dedicate 100% of donations to our research program to develop better prevention, diagnostic and therapeutic approaches to combat melanoma.

Ups and Downs for Melanoma. But Staying Focused.

By Louise M. Perkins, PhD

Chief Science Officer Louise Perkins Headshot

This time a week ago I was jubilant. The SU2C-MRA Melanoma Dream Team’s paper describing a precision medicine approach to treating patients had just been published. And in the middle of the week an important article published in the prestigious scientific journal Cell describing the comprehensive genomic landscape of over 300 melanomas by The Cancer Genome Atlas team – an enormous work that allows us to better understand and target melanoma.

Clearly, with all of this information at our fingertips, with new immunotherapy treatments, with targeted therapy options and new ways to precisely match treatments to patients we have never been closer to defeating this disease. So much progress! I was so excited.

This week I got a text that brought me back to the real world.

In April, I met a businessman at the Milken Institute Global Conference. He told me of his friend, J, who had advanced melanoma. He asked if I might try to help J in some way. I spoke with her and learned that fortunately, she was already connected with some of the leading docs in melanoma. She’d gotten all the new treatments. But she wasn’t doing great and felt like she needed to move back home to be closer to her mom. I had a chance to learn her story and get to know her a tiny bit and was hopeful that things might turn out well.

The text I awoke to let me know that J. died earlier this week. At 32, she’d lost her fight to melanoma.

Earlier this week, MRA met with folks from the FDA along with two leading melanoma experts (Michael Atkins and Paul Chapman) to discuss the latest in the field from the recent cancer meetings. These conversations help to identify new opportunities and help keep the focus on melanoma. The FDA colleagues are great, by the way, and have been amazing partners in bringing new treatments to patients with melanoma very quickly.

In the discussion, both Drs. Atkins and Chapman pointed out that older melanoma patients, the ones who would typically be least likely to tolerate and respond to chemotherapy, actually seem to respond to AND tolerate checkpoint therapy (anti-CTLA-4 and/or anti-PD-1) treatment better than younger folks. The reasons for this aren’t quite clear but two possible explanations spring to mind. Perhaps the tumors in these older individuals have more mutations acquired over a long life and so have more ‘hooks’ for the immune system to latch on to and recognize as foreign. Another hypothesis is that the older folks have immune systems that aren’t as robust as those in younger patients. That robust immune system might get a little overactive in young folks – harming good cells alongside the tumor ones (leading to more side effects) and also prematurely turning off the anti-tumor response.

Is it possible this is like the Spanish Flu where younger, fitter patients were more at risk than older patients? Researchers are working on understanding the differences between responders and non-responders to try to determine what might be tweaked to elicit more and more responses in patients. One of the key takeaways from the meeting with the FDA was the need to continue to focus on those patients who aren’t fully benefiting from current therapy to understand the unique features of their melanoma and work together to beat it. We talked about sub-types that form in the eye, the mucosal surfaces and on non-sun-exposed sites like soles of the feet. We talked about melanoma that has metastasized to the brain – a vexing problem for too many. All of these patients who don’t respond to treatments, old or young, need better options.

Unfortunately, it is too late to help J, or Jackie, or Tara – the young women MRA got to know in the last two years – or Claire, the 17 year old who went to my high school. The deaths of these young women put a fine point on the urgency to keep the pressure on for all melanoma patients to find a cure.

Thanks to all of you for funding the research to understand what’s different and what to do to change the outcomes for patients like these young women – and all of those with advanced melanoma. We’re committed and appreciate your commitment, too.

About the Author

Louise M. Perkins, Ph.D., joined the Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA) as Chief Science Officer in 2013 where she is responsible for the development and implementation of MRA’s scientific strategy.

On the Path to Precision Medicine for Melanoma Patients

By Louise M Perkins, PhD
Chief Science Officer

There is no denying the transformative success of new treatments for melanoma ranging from molecularly targeted agents for BRAF-mutant melanoma to immunotherapies like anti-CTLA4 and anti-PD-1 drugs. Indeed, the treatment of BRAF-mutant melanoma is a prime example of Precision Medicine; that is, matching treatments to a patient’s specific disease.

Yet, despite the progress, about half of melanoma patients lack a BRAF mutation and treatment resistance to immunotherapy is far too common. New strategies for these patients cannot come quickly enough.

Expanding Precision Medicine in Practice

Since 2012, the SU2C-MRA Melanoma Dream Team has been working on one such strategy, a Precision Medicine approach – similar to what President Obama advocated just a few months ago – with joint funding by both the Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA) and Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C).

The first publication describing the pilot phase of the Melanoma Dream Team’s genomically guided therapy study appeared online recently in the journal Molecular Cancer Therapeutics. The team piloted its approach to ensure that state-of-the-art genomic information could be produced with biopsies from patients with melanoma that could be useful for treatment decision-making in a timely way. While this idea may sound simple, it is no easy feat, with many real-world logistical and technical challenges.

Teamwork is a key feature in overcoming many of these challenges, including starting and running a complex trial of this sort involving multiple centers and high-tech analyses. But state-of-the-art science is also needed. The team’s cutting-edge sequencing machines and expertise in genomics is critical to produce and analyze the genomic data. This genomic data can help spot tumor-specific mutations that might be susceptible to therapeutic treatment. Together, the teamwork, expertise and technology provide the means to unlock a better understanding of how to offer treatments tailored to the unique genomic features of one’s own tumor.

Sharing Lessons Learned

The important lessons learned in this pilot have already been shared widely in meetings with researchers to speed the startup of similar studies across cancers. And participants from programs like NCI-MATCH and LungMAP have been actively sharing information on this topic, too. It is gratifying to see the Melanoma Dream Team’s programmatic advances disseminated world-wide through this recent publication.

What’s Next?

It is important to ask how well such a Precision Medicine approach works with larger numbers of melanoma patients, as the field continues its efforts to overcome resistance to available treatments and work toward wider adoption of Precision Medicine.

To that end, the Melanoma Dream Team has several sites around the country that are enrolling eligible patients with melanoma who have progressed on (or are ineligible for) approved immunotherapies and who lack a BRAF V600 mutation that would qualify them for molecularly targeted treatments.

Why #ItsTHATWorthIt to Me to Protect My Skin

By Lauren Leiman
Senior Director, Marketing and Development

This summer, L’Oréal Paris, in partnership with the Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA), is asking women everywhere to demonstrate why it’s imperative to protect their skin, beauty, and life through the #ItsTHATWorthIt social media campaign. To help kick off the campaign, L’Oréal hosted two events – one in Los Angeles and one in Miami – attended by celebrities, influential bloggers, and those affected by melanoma. I had the pleasure of representing MRA at these recent events.

MRA's Lauren Leiman and Diane Keaton.

MRA’s Lauren Leiman and Diane Keaton.

I sat alongside L’Oréal spokeswomen and actresses, Diane Keaton and Génesis Rodríguez, as well as celebrity aesthetician Vanessa Hernandez, dermatologist Flor Mayoral, and L’Oréal executives Danielle Macaluso and Malena Higuera. Diane and Génesis shared their personal experiences with skin cancer and how their encounters with the disease have positively impacted their daily beauty and health regimens. We discussed the importance of raising awareness of melanoma and ways to prevent the disease, such as wearing sunscreen every day.

Melanoma is the most common cancer diagnosed in women 25-29 years old, and for Latinos, rates have risen about 20 percent in the last 20 years. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released information last week showing that the number of cases of melanoma has doubled in the last 30 years, and it is predicted cases will continue to rise over the next 15 years.

Now more than ever, #ItsTHATWorthIt to help spread the word about the dangers of melanoma – and how you can protect yourself!

In addition to generating awareness, the #ItsTHATWorthIt program also raises funding to support year three of the L’Oréal Paris-MRA Team Science Award, which explores the origins of melanoma, including the disease’s development and progression. For every social share now through Labor Day, L’Oréal Paris will donate $1 to MRA to fund the L’Oréal Paris – MRA Team Science Award, up to $250,000 in 2015.

The audience at the Miami #ItsThatWorthIt event.

The audience at the Miami #ItsThatWorthIt event.

Here is how to participate in the #It’sTHATWorthIt campaign:

  1. Create a 15 second video or photo sharing with your social community why SPF protection or using sunless tanner is worth it to you.
  2. Share the video or photo via Insta-video/Instagram, Facebook and/or Twitter with hashtag #ItsTHATWorthIt
  3. Get your unique social media community involved by tagging three friends in your post.

Check out some of our videos on Instagram!

Don’t use social media? L’Oréal is also donating $1 from sales of select SPF and sunless tanning products now through December 31, 2015.

Partners like L’Oréal help to spread awareness about the reality of melanoma and why prevention is critical, and it also helps MRA to further our mission of ending death and suffering from melanoma by supporting research.

Through the support of our partners like L’Oréal and you, we can help prevent and find meaningful cures for melanoma. Please join us and share why #ItsTHATWorthIt to you.

The Latest in Melanoma Research: News from the Two Biggest Cancer Meetings

By Louise Perkins, PhD
Chief Science Officer

There’s been a lot of news on melanoma treatments in the last couple of weeks coming out of the two largest cancer conferences held each year: the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meetings. The results – particularly in the area of immunotherapy – really are exciting for the field of melanoma and cancer, at large.  On the Diane Rehm Show this week, melanoma was described as the “poster child for immunotherapy,” which it certainly has been.

So what’s new, and what does it mean now and for the near future?

Melanoma drugs circa 2014

In September and December 2014, two new melanoma treatments were approved by the FDA for advanced metastatic melanoma. These are the anti-PD-1 drugs pembrolizumab (pembro, Keytruda®) and nivolumab (nivo, Opdivo®). Pembro and nivo release the so-called “brakes” on the immune system, to help the body’s own immune system fight cancer. Another drug, ipilimumab (ipi, Yervoy®), is an anti-CTLA-4 drug and was FDA-approved in 2011.  Check out our video that describes how these immunotherapies work.

The latest news from early 2015
Researchers have been trying to answer a few important questions about these new immunotherapies, such as:

  1. Is anti-PD-1 (pembro, nivo) treatment better than anti-CTLA-4 (ipi) in patients who have not had any prior therapy?
  2. Do anti-CTLA-4 and anti-PD-1 in combination work even better than either treatment alone for patients who have not had any prior therapy?

MRA-funded investigator Jedd Wolchok, MD, PhD, and colleagues addressed the latter question in a Phase 3 trial at ASCO. The study involved more than 900 previously untreated metastatic melanoma patients and compared three different therapies:

  1. Ipi alone
  2. Nivo alone
  3. Ipi and nivo in combination

They found that nivo either alone or in combination with ipi had better results for patients than ipi alone.

This is similar to what was reported at AACR by Antoni Ribas, MD, in a Phase 3 study of the other anti-PD-1 drug pembro, which showed that pembro was better than ipi in previously untreated patients.  More trials are underway to confirm whether or not the combination allows patients to live longer (overall survival) versus single-agent therapy.

One important piece to note is that recent studies found that the increased benefit of the combination also comes with increased side effects; in fact, approximately one-third of patients discontinued therapy due to side effects.

At ASCO, Michael Atkins, MD, summarized these clinical findings that have been presented over recent months:

  • Nivolumab is better than ipilimumab alone
  • Pembrolizumab is better than ipilimumab alone
  • Nivolumab and ipilimumab in combination are better than ipilimumab alone

What does this mean for melanoma patients?

Believe it or not, things are moving amazingly fast. So what does all of this mean for patients in June 2015, just 9 months after the first anti-PD1 treatment was approved by FDA?  Well, one leading cancer guideline group, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, already updated its melanoma treatment guidelines in March to recommend that oncologists consider a single-agent anti-PD1 (either nivo or pembro) as first line treatment for advanced metastatic melanoma patients (pembro and nivo were FDA approved for patients who have progressed on prior therapies).

More research is needed to determine if and when and for which patients the combination of anti-PD-1 and anti-CTLA-4 should be used.

Let’s Continue the Momentum

By Logan Kastner
Director of Marketing and Development

The month of May flew by with a tremendous amount of energy and effort devoted to raising awareness and funds for melanoma. It was inspiring to see so much buzz in the news and on social media about the importance of using sun protection and taking the appropriate steps to reduce your risk of melanoma.

The Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA) is committed to keeping the momentum alive and excited to share ways you can stay involved throughout the summer. Here’s how you can continue to show your support:

  • Tell us why It’s That Worth It – Upload a 15-second video or photo demonstrating to your social community why SPF protection or sunless tanner is THAT worth it to you. Use #ItsThatWorthIt on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and L’Oreal Paris will donate $1 to MRA, up to $250,000. Take a few seconds to check out one of our videos!
  • Support Camp Gorgeous –Neiman Marcus is partnering with over a dozen companies that are generously donating 10% of the net proceeds of select suncare-product sales to support MRA during Camp Gorgeous, June 4-14. Neiman Marcus will match their donations dollar for dollar.
  • Check out Mott 50: Use the code MELANOMACURE at checkout from June 15-21 and Mott 50 will provide a 20% savings and donate 20% of sales to MRA.

An established leader in cancer research, MRA is paving the way to new treatment options for melanoma patients, and the impact is being felt in the entire cancer community. Due to the generous ongoing support of the organization’s founders, Debra and Leon Black, 100% of donations support MRA’s research program. Our work is far from over. Let’s continue the momentum toward finding a cure for melanoma!

About The Author

Logan E. Kastner is Director of Marketing and Development for the Melanoma Research Alliance. Kastner joined MRA in 2015