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.


The Latest on Skin Cancer Screenings

To routinely screen for skin cancer or not to screen? That hot-button question still doesn’t have a solid answer.

In 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force found insufficient evidence to recommend annual skin cancer screenings for all adults. Currently, the Task Force is reviewing the most recent research findings and may (or may not) change this recommendation. MRA has funded research looking at the benefits and harms of population-based skin checks, and the results of this research will mature over the next year.

In the meantime, certain high-risk people should discuss with their healthcare provider about annual skin exams with a dermatologist or other trained professional.

Am I High Risk for Skin Cancer?

You’re considered high risk if you meet one or more of these criteria:

  • You have a family history of skin cancer.
  • You have a personal history (prior diagnosis) of skin cancer.
  • You have a lot of moles or freckles.
  • You have a fair complexion and/or have red or blonde hair.
  • History of sunburns and/or use of tanning beds.

Skin Cancer Screening: What to Expect

Most skin checks begin with a doctor (usually a dermatologist) visually giving your skin a once-over to look for suspicious-looking moles, freckles, lesions or skin changes. Your doctor may use a dermatoscope during this process. This magnifying device uses a special light source to illuminate features below the skin’s surface.

Screening with Total Body Photography

Total body photography (TBP) systems can aid melanoma screening for certain high-risk individuals, particularly those with many moles.

There are several advantages to this technology:

  • TBP can help physicians keep track of many suspicious lesions on an individual. Should your doctor detect a possible skin change at a later appointment, he or she can compare it to baseline images.
  • Doctors avoid performing unnecessary biopsies if the comparison indicates that the suspicious area really hasn’t changed.

If you’re at high risk for melanoma, check with your dermatologist to see if TBP is available. You also should check with you health insurance provider since the service may not be covered.

MRA funded a research award to develop a three-dimensional TBP system. Using more than 40 cameras, the system photographs the entire surface of the skin and creates a digital model in less time than current TBP systems. It is currently only available at one skin cancer clinic in the U.S.

Learn more about early detection and prevention: Educate yourself about melanoma.

You can read the full recap in our Scientific Retreat Report.


Two MRA-Sponsored Investigators Published Papers in the New England Journal of Medicine

Two MRA-sponsored investigators recently reported on the clinical testing of immune checkpoint inhibitors targeting a pathway known as PD-1 in the New England Journal of Medicine. This therapeutic approach, whose clinical utility was established by the FDA approval of ipilimumab in 2011, has produced promising data in patients with advanced melanoma.

A new study, published by Jedd Wolchok of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and others, evaluated the anti-PD-1 antibody nivolumab alone and in combination with ipilimumab. Of the 53 patients treated with the two drugs concurrently, nearly 50% experienced rapid tumor regression. These results suggest that the combination of nivolumab and ipilimumab may be more effective than either agent alone. To read more about these findings see, “Nivolumab plus Ipilimumab in Advanced Melanoma.”

Another study, led by Antoni Ribas of University of California, Los Angeles, and other investigators, revealed promising data on the anti-PD-1 antibody lambrolizumab. Of the 135 patients who received lambrolizumab as a single agent, a significant number of patients experienced a response, with a majority of them demonstrating durable responses for more than 40 weeks. In this study, pretreatment with ipilimumab did not appear to affect the response to lambrolizumab. To learn more about this work see, “Safety and Tumor Responses with Lambrolizumab (Anti-PD-1) in Melanoma.”

While more studies are needed to confirm these observations, this early data provides great news for melanoma patients. These results suggest opportunities to adjust the immune system’s surveillance of melanoma and harness it to fight the disease.