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MRF Announces 2009 Research Grants

Non-Profit Gives $800,000 for Melanoma Research in 2009

-Melanoma Research Foundation awards grants to five melanoma researchers- 

HILLSBOROUGH, N.J.—Today the Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF), the largest independent, national organization devoted to melanoma in the U.S., announced the recipients of five new research grants as part of its Career Development Grant Program and Established Investigator Grant Program.  The MRF’s Research Grant Programs support promising medical research that furthers the development of effective treatments and a possible cure for malignant melanoma, while encouraging scientists and clinicians to join in this mission. 

“People with melanoma desperately need new and improved treatment options.  Recognizing that scientific advancements begin in the lab, it is imperative that we support researchers to ensure their work continues,” said Tim Turnham, executive director, the Melanoma Research Foundation.  “Each year, the Melanoma Research Foundation is able to provide emerging and established scientific investigators with highly sought-after grants that will allow them to explore new avenues in melanoma biology and treatments ultimately leading to a cure.”  

Approximately seven years ago, the cancer research community began unlocking the underlying genetic malfunctions that occur in cells causing melanoma.  Today, researchers are beginning to correlate those discoveries to therapies that may have a meaningful impact on the survival of patients.  Although the melanoma research community is poised to make unprecedented strides in the understanding, prevention and treatment of melanoma, these research efforts have been hindered by the fact that melanoma research is woefully underfunded.  

The MRF’s Career Development Grant provides funding of up to $50,000 per year for two years to investigators who are beginning a research career emphasizing melanoma-related projects.  The MRF’s Established Investigator Grant provides funding of up to $100,000 per year for two years to established researchers in melanoma or those in closely related fields who wish to move into melanoma research.   

“The quality of the research proposals we received this year was unparalleled and created a pool of highly competitive applications,” said Meenhard Herlyn, D.V.M., D.Sc., co-chair of the MRF’s Scientific Advisory Committee and leader of the Oncogenesis Program at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia.  “The MRF awards the grants to applicants with the best combination of scientific merit, appropriately skilled researchers, the greatest likelihood for success and the highest benefit for the melanoma patient community.”   

Grant recipients are selected through a scientific peer-reviewed system comprised of leading clinical and pre-clinical melanoma researchers.  This year’s recipients include: 

  • Dr. Vitali Alexeev, Thomas Jefferson University, “MicroRNA in regulation and targeting of the cKit receptor in malignant melanoma.”  MicroRNA molecules appear to have a major role in tumor development.  Dr. Alexeev’s research will examine specific forms of microRNA that appear to be over-expressed in several melanoma types.  These forms impact translation of cKit, a protein known to be abnormally expressed in several types of melanoma.  Suppressing these molecules may restore normal expression of cKit and interfere with the tumor’s ability to grow. 
  • Dr. Ed Harlow, Harvard Medical School, “Requirements for MITF-dependent melanomas: identification of novel drug targets.”  MITF is the gene responsible for the growth and development of normal melanocytes.  Because MITF is overactive in about 20 percent of melanomas, finding a way to control MITF could be a promising therapeutic approach.  However, this has proven difficult.  Dr. Harlow will use a new large-scale screening tool to find proteins essential to MITF, then use those proteins to control the gene and see if this affects tumor growth.  
  • Dr. SubbaRao Madhunapantula, Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, “Targeting Kinases to Treat Melanoma.”  Dr. Madhunapantula’s research will identify key proteins, or kinases, that are required for melanoma cells to grow.  Large scale screening will then identify unique forms of small interfering RNA (siRNA) that interfere with these kinases.  Finally, microscopic capsules called nanoliposomes will be used to deliver the siRNA to melanoma cells, with the hope that this will inhibit tumor development.  
  • Dr. Vladislava Melnikova, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, “Regulation of Melanoma Metastasis by the Tumor Microenvironment: The Role of Platelet Activating Factor (PAF) and PAF Receptor.”  PAF and its receptor (PAFR) play an important role in the body’s inflammatory response; however, there has been little investigation of the role these activators may play in tumor growth and metastasis.  Dr. Melnikova’s research will explore the role PAF and PAFR may play in the regulation of melanoma metastasis and if inhibiting PAFR expression in melanoma cells would decrease their ability to form tumors and lung metastasis.  
  • Dr. Keiran Smalley, The Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, “Targeted therapy for melanoma.”  Two-thirds of melanomas have a mutated form of the BRAF gene.  Initial attempts to treat melanoma by regulating BRAF have proven unsuccessful, most likely because other growth-promoting pathways exist in tumor cells.  Dr. Smalley seeks to identify these alternate pathways.  Future treatments may involve a combination of drugs personalized for each patient and designed to interfere with key pathways unique to that person’s tumor. 

“Generous donations made to the MRF are the key to funding these potentially life-saving research programs, and the high quality of grant applications this year is testament to the desperate need for greater research funding,” said C. Randy Lomax, chairman of the MRF’s board of directors.  “It is our hope that by funding these research proposals we move one step closer to new, better treatment options and ultimately a cure for melanoma.”   

The most deadly type of skin cancer, melanoma can strike people of all ages, all races and both sexes.  In 2008, more than 62,000 Americans were expected to be diagnosed with the disease, resulting in an estimated 8,400 deaths.   

In its early stages, melanoma can be successfully removed and monitored by regular skin screenings.  However, the disease is deadly in its most advanced stages, as few treatment options exist.  The median life expectancy for patients with advanced melanoma is less than one year and existing therapies have not improved survival in more than a decade.