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June 13, 2017

MSU Gran Fondo funds promising skin cancer studies

Michigan State University College of Human Medicine researchers are conducting three promising studies that could lead to new treatments for skin cancer, including melanoma, the deadliest form.

But without money raised by MSU’s annual Gran Fondo cycling event, none of the three studies would be going forward.

“To make a long story short, I wouldn’t be working on this if it wasn’t for the MSU Gran Fondo,” said researcher Fredric Manfredsson, an assistant professor in the Department of Translational Science & Molecular Medicine.

In its first four years, the MSU Gran Fondo raised more than $640,000 for skin cancer awareness, prevention and research. The fifth annual ride will be held June 24 in downtown Grand Rapids.

Manfredsson recently received a $30,000 grant from the MSU Gran Fondo skin cancer research fund to continue his study using a virus to carry a protein into melanoma cells, causing them to die and preventing the cancer from spreading. While current chemotherapy treatments can slow the spread – or metastasis – of melanoma, in its advanced stages the cancer usually becomes resistant to treatment.

Working with a colleague at Wayne State University, Manfredsson developed a method to insert a protein into the cancer cells.

“Essentially, we have a protein that goes to the nucleus and chews up the DNA,” killing the cells and rendering them unable to resist treatment, Manfredsson said. “The data we have so far is very, very encouraging.”

In another study backed by a $15,000 MSU Gran Fondo grant, Jamie Bernard, an assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology, is looking at the association between obesity and an increased risk of skin cancer. Exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays can damage skin cells, often leading to skin cancer, but in some cases, the damaged cells either die or repair themselves before the cancer develops.

Bernard suspects that in obese people, particularly those on a high-fat diet, the fat cells in the abdomen secrete a growth factor, causing the damaged skin cells to survive and increasing the risk of skin cancer.

If borne out by research, the study could lead to a blood test to identify those people most at risk of developing skin cancer, she said.

“It would allow us to look at the initial stages of cancer development,” Bernard said, and take steps to prevent it or begin treatment in its early stages.

The MSU Gran Fondo grants are important, because they allow MSU researchers to gather enough preliminary data to qualify for larger awards, such as from the National Institutes of Health, said Richard Neubig, chair of the Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology. The NIH grants can support further research, possibly including clinical trials with human patients, which can take years and cost millions of dollars, he said.

Neubig recently received a $35,000 Gran Fondo grant to continue his study of a combination of drugs that could prevent melanoma from metastasizing. The anti-cancer drug Trametinib is given to treat a common form of melanoma, but the cancer typically becomes resistant to that treatment.

Neubig’s laboratory tests show that when given in combination with a new compound called CCG-222740, Trametinib becomes much more potent.

“We have some really exciting data,” he said. “We believe our compound will help restore sensitivity to the treatments that are already approved. We can go beyond blocking metastasis. We can kill the melanoma cells.”

As for the Gran Fondo grant, “It’s really critical,” Neubig said. “I think it will greatly improve our chances of moving forward.”

All funds raised through the MSU Gran Fondo support the College of Human Medicine’s skin cancer awareness, prevention and research efforts.

Join the ride on June 24 in Grand Rapids or donate at

By: Geri Kelley