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New Cancer Treatments Seek to Give the Immune System Superpowers

November 19, 2013
Melanoma is scary. It is aggressive, spreads quickly to far-away organs with the stealth and cunning of the most adept villain, and it is increasingly striking young people-it is now the most common form of cancer diagnosed in women 25-29. But the “good guys” are fighting back with increasing success. As the CEO of the Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA), a patient-focused, science-based organization dedicated to fighting this deadly skin cancer, I see signs every day that we are going to vanquish melanoma.

Recent scientific gains against melanoma have patients, clinicians and scientists feeling hopeful about new therapies. These advances are not only changing the dynamic for melanoma patients; they are also showing tremendous promise for people suffering from other types of cancer. In a recent New York Times article on the promise of cancer immunotherapies, researchers and clinicians described this approach to fighting cancer with phrases like, “game-changer” and other descriptors not often heard in the cancer space.

The latest immunotherapies being tested in melanoma and other diseases represent a new resurgence for a long-hoped-for methodology to attack cancer. Nearly a century after scientists discovered interaction between cancer and the immune system, today’s novel treatment approaches are capitalizing on the growing understanding of the complex relationship between the two. Immunotherapies seek to improve the patient’s immune system’s ability to destroy cancer cells. Since melanoma is one of the most immunogenic types of cancer-meaning many patients’ immune systems already recognize and attempt to attack the cancer-it is where much research into immunotherapies has begun and is yielding fruit.

Ipilimumab, also known as Yervoy, was approved by the U.S. FDA in 2011 to treat metastatic melanoma. Ipilimumab is a so-called immune checkpoint blocking drug, which works to remove the “brakes” on the immune system. We now have evidence showing that about 20% of melanoma patients exhibit a durable response to Ipilimumab and live ten years or longer after beginning therapy.

Despite the tantalizing progress, we aren't there yet-only a fraction of melanoma patients respond to Ipilimumab.  Follow-up studies are underway to develop tools to better predict who will respond, and MRA is investing significant resources in this area. Still, this is an impressive result for a disease that had few effective treatment options prior to 2011, and it has led people in the field to speak of a cure for some patients.

Building upon the “proof of concept” for the effectiveness of this type of approach, researchers are developing the next generation of checkpoint blockers. A series of antibodies directed at the immune checkpoint mediated by PD-1 demonstrate encouraging clinical trial findings and have the potential to derail cancers like melanoma, kidney cancer, and certain types of lung cancer. This next generation of treatments is causing new excitement within the oncology community.

At least five pharmaceutical companies have such anti-PD-1 agents in clinical trials against melanoma, and one of the compounds earned the FDA’s new ‘Breakthrough Therapy Designation’ earlier this year based on data from early studies. Recognizing the potential of this approach, MRA has awarded more than $10 million to research projects focused on immune checkpoint blockade, while also supporting other immune system-based approaches to fighting melanoma.

Sometimes, superheroes need to band together in the fight against the super-villains, and that’s why MRA is focused on collaborating with the best across the entire field. We have teamed up with industry allies to award eight Academic-Industry Partnership Awards, which are research grants that are supported by matching funds from our organization and companies. These collaborations have allowed researchers to test promising devices and treatments for application in the fight against melanoma, leveraging MRA’s resources against those of an industry partner to support the high-impact proposal of a single academic researcher or an all-star team of scientists.

We're also funding team science to bring the best minds together and fueling the careers of Young Investigators whose great ideas represent the future. By supporting more than 40 of these extraordinary scientists, we are striving to keep them in the melanoma research field at a time when NIH is scaling back its grants and many frustrated researchers are contemplating switching careers or industries.

All of these investments and scientific breakthroughs are galvanizing the melanoma research community. At last the good guys have the upper hand against melanoma, and MRA will continue to champion the most promising researchers and innovations in the space until no one suffers or dies from melanoma. Who needs a superhero cape when you have a lab coat?

Wendy Selig is the President and CEO of the Melanoma Research Alliance.  As a result of ongoing support from its founders, the organization devotes 100% of every dollar it raises to research, and has funded more than $49 million of research into melanoma since 2007.  Check them out on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and WordPress.