Vashisht Yennu Nanda, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Melanoma Medical Oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Dr. Yennu Nanda is the recipient of an MRA Young Investigator Award and shared a bit about his research for the blog.
How did you get interested in melanoma and your field of research?
It was during my postdoctoral fellowship period, when I found that melanomas were very sensitive to compounds that activate the p53 tumor suppressor by various mechanisms. I was also captivated by the many unknowns in the unique pigmentation-associated pathways that can promote the transformation of normal melanocytes into this aggressive cancer.
Over the past decade, treatment of melanoma patients with small-molecule inhibitors that exquisitely target specific oncogenic proteins in melanoma cells have produced groundbreaking responses in most of these patients. However, the responses are not long-lasting and most melanomas eventually become resistant to these inhibitors.
Our research is aimed at figuring out the mechanisms of resistance, and most importantly, developing strategies to counteract them.
What is one thing about melanoma research that surprised you when you first started?
As a grad student and postdoctoral fellow, I worked with many types of cancers, including melanomas, and I was always surprised by the molecular distinctiveness of melanomas compared to all other cancers. Our recent cancer metabolism study results have reinforced this sentiment, as we have found that melanomas are also metabolically distinct compared to other cancers.
How has MRA funding helped your work?
Our research is at a critical juncture of molecularly identifying targeted therapy-resistant melanomas that would best respond to a novel mitochondrial inhibitor, IACS-10759, and systematically evaluating this response. My Young Investigator Award from MRA is supporting this endeavor, which has the potential to make a difference for melanoma patients in the near future.
What do you hope to see more of in the future of melanoma research?
Although giant strides have been made in targeted therapy and immunotherapy of melanoma, resistance is still an issue, and a large number of patients do not respond to immunotherapies. I think the field will benefit from a stronger emphasis on bold fundamental research to understand the molecular changes that occur inside melanocytes and in their immediate vicinity that force these cells to become melanomas in the first place.
Also needed is a strong emphasis on understanding molecular changes in melanomas and their microenvironment during the various stages of metastatic growth, therapeutic response and resistance. Development of novel humanized animal models and a greater patient involvement will be imperative to the success of such research.
What do you do when you’re not conducting research?
Spending time with family and swimming are the two primary activities outside of my research life.