News & Press

New Research Grant Recipient Announced

In 2016, the Melanoma Research Foundation Breakthrough Consortium (MRFBC) convened a meeting of its scientific advisors to assess the greatest areas of need in the current research landscape to guide its grant funding. Following a thorough examination, the assembled researchers arrived at a consensus recommendation to encourage a critical mass of innovative young researchers to enter the promising field of melanoma immunotherapy. The advisors recommended a new grant mechanism to support a multi-institutional young investigators’ award working as a team with mentors.  While funding agencies may have young investigator or team awards, the opportunity for young investigators to conduct impactful, team research across centers was lacking. Therefore, in response to this concern, the MRFBC -with generous support from Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS)- offered an award specifically for junior faculty aimed at advancing translational immuno-oncology research in melanoma.

The MRF is pleased to announce that Douglas B. Johnson, MD, is the principal investigator of this inaugural MRFBC-BMS Young Investigator Research Team Award to Advance the Field of Translational Immuno-Oncology. Dr. Johnson is an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology/Oncology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Co-Primary Investigators are Sunandana Chandra, MD, MS, at Northwestern University and Meghan Mooradian, MD, at Massachusetts General Hospital. The mentors are Kimryn Rathmell, Jeffrey Sosman, and Ryan Sullivan, respectively.  The project title is Comprehensive Profiling of Immune Checkpoint Inhibitor Colitis, described in the following lay abstract:

Immune therapies termed “immune checkpoint inhibitors” such as nivolumab (Opdivo), pembrolizumab (Keytruda) and ipilimumab (Yervoy),remove key “brakes” on immune cells. These treatments have led to long-term responses and cures in some patients with advanced melanoma and are now being used more often in the adjuvant setting. However, they may also cause severe side effects. These toxicities result from abnormal immune cell activation, and are highly unpredictable. This presents several important obstacles to improving treatment for patients:

1) We are unable to predict which patients will develop severe toxicities so that they may be managed appropriately;
2) Combinations cause more toxicity, limiting our ability to develop more active combinations of therapies; and
3) Patients who have long-term benefit may still develop devastating side effects affecting quality of life..

To address these problems, we propose to perform an in-depth study of the most common severe toxicity: colitis (inflammation of the colon). To do this, we propose the following aims: First, we will look at genetic and immune factors that may predispose patients to colitis. Many autoimmune conditions that have similarities with immune colitis have such genetic and immune system links. Second, we will take colon biopsies from patients who have colitis, and perform in-depth analysis of these tissues. We will compare the specific immune cells between the colon, blood, and tumor to better understand how the immune system is working in all three areas, and how to “turn off” abnormal activation while maintaining activity against the tumor. Third, we will collect cases from large melanoma centers to determine exactly when and how colitis occurs, and how best to treat it. Ultimately, we propose that in-depth study of this common and severe toxicity will allow us to understand it, prevent it, and treat it more effectively.

On behalf of the MRF, members of the Breakthrough Consortium and our partners at Bristol-Myers Squibb, we congratulate Dr. Johnson and his research team and are proud to support the latest advances to benefit those in the melanoma community.

Learn more about previous research grant recipients, current and upcoming funding opportunities and our additional scientific initiatives in the MRF Research Center.