Published: Dec. 14, 2011

Researchers join Stand Up To Cancer’s melanoma ‘dream team’

Contact(s): Tom Oswald Media Communications office: (517) 432-0920 cell: (517) 281-7129 Tom.Oswald@cabs.msu.edu, Joe Gavan Van Andel Research Institute office: (616) 234-5390 joe.gavan@vai.org

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Three Michigan State University and Van Andel Research Institute scientists are joining 47 other top cancer researchers nationwide on a Stand Up to Cancer Dream Team tasked with a $6 million project to find therapies for a deadly form of melanoma with few treatment options.

Van Andel President and Research Director Jeffrey M. Trent and Patricia M. LoRusso of Karmanos Cancer Institute and Wayne State University’s School of Medicine will lead the project, which also includes Craig Webb, co-director of Van Andel’s Pediatric Cancer Translational Research Program, and Brian Nickoloff, director of the Nicholas V. Perricone, M.D., Division of Dermatology and Cutaneous Sciences at MSU’s College of Human Medicine and director of cutaneous oncology at Van Andel.

Stand Up To Cancer, its scientific partner the American Association for Cancer Research, and the Melanoma Research Alliance announced the new dream team dedicated to melanoma research today. Melanoma of the skin is the fifth-most common cancer diagnosed in the United States, where one person dies from the disease every hour.

“Combining resources to compete against this disease and accelerating the pace of cancer research are twin pillars of the Stand Up To Cancer approach, and we were delighted to work with the Melanoma Research Alliance on our first grant made in collaboration with another foundation,” said Sherry Lansing, one of Stand Up To Cancer’s co-founders.

Trent, an expert in molecular-based systems biology approaches to cancer, will serve as the team leader. His work is focused on applying genomic tools to study melanoma. LoRusso, the team co-leader, is a leading clinical investigator in early developmental therapeutics and will be principal investigator for the clinical trials.

“The Stand Up To Cancer-Melanoma Research Alliance grant gives us the remarkable ability to align cutting-edge researchers across the globe to join forces to defeat this terrible disease," Trent said.

About half of patients with metastatic melanoma (which has a median survival of six to nine months and a five-year survival rate of 15 percent to 20 percent) have a mutation in a certain gene in their tumor called the BRAF gene, but the other half are known as BRAF wild type, or BRAFwt, and have very few treatment options available to them.

The research team, in focusing on patients with BRAFwt tumors, will investigate whether personalized, targeted therapies are beneficial. Team members will profile melanoma tumor cell lines and test different compounds that may be therapeutic. That data will then be used to generate models that predict the sensitivity of BRAFwt melanomas to specific drugs.

“Stand Up to Cancer’s Dream Team approach, and this project in particular, are truly emblematic of the collaborative nature of personalized medicine, in which experts from multiple disciplines converge as a dedicated team to integrate clinical expertise with unprecedented advances in knowledge and technologies, emphasizing the use of genetic information about an individual patient to optimize that patient’s care,” Webb said.

The goal is a 30 percent improvement in tumor response relative to standard-of-care therapy.  The team also hopes an individualized medicine approach to BRAFwt melanoma will not only lead to therapeutic benefit for this patient population, but also be beneficial to many other tumor and disease types.

“Being part of this team is a huge honor and fulfills a professional dream to improve the practice of medicine when it comes to patients with melanoma,” said Nickoloff, who for the past 15 years has been studying the disease that kills one person every hour in the United States. “While melanoma is not one of the most common cancers people think of, it is very deadly.”

The other members of the research team come from the Mayo Clinic, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Scripps Research Institute, Sanford-Burnham Medical Center and Arizona State University. They were selected during a rigorous process of the Stand Up To Cancer/Melanoma Research Alliance’s Joint Scientific Advisory Committee.

Stand Up To Cancer, a program of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, raises funds to accelerate the pace of groundbreaking translational research that will get new therapies to patients quickly. The “Dream Team” approach to funding such research enables scientists from different disciplines at research centers across the country and internationally to collaborate on projects geared toward getting new, less toxic treatments to patients as quickly as possible.

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