May 4, 2016: 

Over the past three decades, more people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined. This May, the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium is bringing awareness to this common – yet highly preventable – form of cancer.

Melanoma expert joins faculty of BTCRC member

The Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium is full of all-stars in many areas of cancer research, and the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University is welcoming yet another all-star to its Melanoma Program.

Jeffrey A. Sosman, MD HematologyOncology

Jeffrey A. Sosman, MD
HematologyOncology

Jeffrey Sosman, MD, a highly esteemed oncologist and internationally recognized melanoma expert and researcher, joins the Lurie Cancer Center as co-leader of the Translational Research in Solid Tumors (TRIST) Program and director of the Melanoma Program. He will also serve as director for faculty development at the Lurie Cancer Center. Sosman has been appointed professor of medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine.

The overall goal of the TRIST Program is to coordinate and enhance the interactions among researchers in the area of solid cancers at Northwestern University. The program consists of accomplished faculty conducting translational studies centered on the themes of molecular and cell biology, early diagnosis, prognosis, risk factors, therapeutics, and treatment of cancer of the aerodigestive tract, dermatologic, gastrointestinal, genitourinary, and neuro-oncologic cancers. Dr. Sosman’s expertise makes him ideal to co-lead such a program.

“We are excited that Dr. Sosman will be joining us,” said Leonidas Platanias, MD, PhD, director of the Lurie Cancer Center.  “He is among the country’s top researchers in cancer immunotherapy and melanoma clinical trials. His experience and superb clinical research work will substantially strengthen our ability to bring novel new treatments to our patients.”

Dr. Sosman is widely recognized for his initiatives to bring translational medicine to melanoma therapy. His research includes the study of this most deadly form of skin cancer that has seen great breakthroughs in both targeted therapy and immune-based therapy in recent years.

Dr. Sosman has been a key contributor to many of the seminal trials which led to approval of at least eight new therapeutic agents for melanoma in the past five years. He continues to study new investigational agents to further increase treatment options for patients with melanoma. He is also widely recognized for his work with malignancies other than melanoma, such as renal cell carcinoma.

The trials conducted by Sosman frequently include a strong translational component centered on immunotherapy, or on targeted therapy aimed at mutated or overexpressed oncogenes.  He has been the lead author or co-author on numerous high-impact papers on melanoma, and was named one of the “Hottest Scientific Researchers” in 2013 by Thomson Reuters ScienceWatch.

Study senior author Kathleen Green, PhD, Joseph L. Mayberry, Sr., Professor of Pathology and Toxicology in the Departments of Pathology and Dermatology

Study senior author Kathleen Green, PhD, Joseph L. Mayberry, Sr., professor of pathology and toxicology in the Departments of Pathology and Dermatology

Decoding pathways

A Northwestern Medicine study has shown that losing a component of the desmosome – part of a group of proteins responsible for attaching cells together – activates genes that lead to the buildup of fibrous scar tissue seen in cardiac disease arrhythmogenic cardiomyopathy.

“Understanding the signals that lead to formation of scar tissue has implications beyond studying just cardiac disease, as the formation of scar tissue is a detrimental effect in many different diseases, such as skin disease and even cancer,” said co-first author Chen Kam, a fifth-year doctoral student in the Walter S. and Lucienne Driskill Graduate Program.

Indoor tanning can heighten melanoma risk

Young women who indoor tan frequently are putting themselves at a greater risk of developing the most deadly form of skin cancer, a new study from the Masonic Cancer Center reported.

“All women who use indoor tanning are at risk of melanoma, but the strongest risk was among women who tanned in their 20s, who were about six times more likely to develop the disease, compared to women who didn’t tan indoors,” said lead researcher DeAnn Lazovich, professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota.

Anthony F. Spadora, Jr. in his Union township, NJ home.

Anthony F. Spadora, Jr. in his Union township, NJ home.

Perfect Timing

The diagnosis of a rare and highly aggressive type of skin cancer anywhere on the body is frightening enough, but when it is found inside the nose, the road to a cure can look ghastly. A new team in head, neck and skull-based surgery at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey is helping to take away this fear. For Tony Spadora, that meant the right hands at the right time.

Read full story.

Keeping Skin Cancer at Bay 

Typical of many kinds of cancer, melanoma becomes deadly when it spreads, and even when it responds well to treatment it often returns and becomes drug resistant.

That is why Richard Neubig, MD, PhD, a professor and chair of the Michigan State University Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, is focusing his research on two promising avenues: one to prevent the often fatal form of skin cancer from metastasizing, and a second to keep it from returning after it goes into remission.

While his research could lead to better treatments for melanoma, even more important is avoiding it in the first place, he said, noting that May is National Melanoma/Skin Cancer Awareness Month.

Anyone can reduce the risk of melanoma and other forms of skin cancer by applying sunscreen, wearing protective clothing and avoiding the mid-day sun and tanning lamps. It also is important to check the skin regularly for new growths or changes in moles.

Another event, the 4th annual MSU Gran Fondo bike ride scheduled for June 25 in Grand Rapids, also is intended to raise awareness as well as money for skin cancer research. In its first three years, the MSU Gran Fondo raised more than $470,000 to support the College of Human Medicine’s skin cancer research program. More information about the MSU Gran Fondo (Italian for “Big Ride) is available here.

“One of the most significant goals of Gran Fondo is raising awareness of the importance of early diagnosis,” since that is when it is most treatable, said Neubig, who plans to ride 25 miles in the event. “It also raises money for research and has helped us a lot with our work.”

Neubig hopes to publish a paper soon on his research into a compound that shows promise of keeping melanoma from spreading.

“Metastasis is a very complex process,” he said, that begins when cancerous cells migrate into a patient’s blood and eventually spread to other parts of the body. Neubig’s work is aimed at interrupting a signaling pathway in cancer cells and preventing their migration and, ultimately, metastasis.

“We’ve identified a pathway that’s very important in melanoma metastasis,” he said, “and we’ve figured out a way to turn off that pathway.”

Other research has identified a protein called RhoC that, when activated, is a key in the signaling pathway that causes melanoma, as well as other cancers, to spread. The compound Neubig has discovered helps prevent metastasis by interrupting that pathway and blocking the effects of RhoC.

About 20 percent of melanoma patients have a mutation in what are known as the Ras genes, which makes their cancer much more difficult to treat. Trametinib is a drug commonly used to treat metastatic melanoma.

“In many cases, we may get a great response” with Trametinib, Neubig said, “but then the patient relapses. Can we find other compounds that make Trametinib work better?”

That’s why his second avenue of research is into combinations of drugs that, along with Trametinib, can help the patient avoid becoming drug resistant and, thus, prevent a relapse of melanoma.

“We’re very excited about the promise of this work,” Neubig said, although he cautioned that new discoveries in the fight against cancer usually take a long time to move into practical application.

You Can Join the Fight Against Cancer

Donate-NowDid you know you can directly support the team efforts of the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium? Make a gift today!

This story was compiled by Alecia Burkhardt, communications associate for the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium, with contributions from the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center, Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center, Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, and Michigan State University Breslin Cancer Center.

About the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium: The Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium was created in 2013 to transform the conduct of cancer research through collaborative, hypothesis-driven, highly translational oncology trials that leverage the scientific and clinical expertise of Big Ten universities. The goal of the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium is to create a unique team-research culture to drive science rapidly from ideas to new approaches to cancer treatment. Within this innovative environment, today’s research leaders collaborate with and mentor the research leaders of tomorrow with the unified goal of improving the lives of all patients with cancer.

About the Big Ten Conference: The Big Ten Conference is an association of world-class universities whose member institutions share a common mission of research, graduate, professional and undergraduate teaching and public service. Founded in 1896, the Big Ten has sustained a comprehensive set of shared practices and policies that enforce the priority of academics in the lives of students competing in intercollegiate athletics and emphasize the values of integrity, fairness and competitiveness. The broad-based programs of the 14 Big Ten institutions will provide over $200 million in direct financial support to almost 9,500 students for more than 11,000 participation opportunities on 350 teams in 42 different sports. The Big Ten sponsors 28 official conference sports, 14 for men and 14 for women, including the addition of men’s ice hockey and men’s and women’s lacrosse since 2013. For more information, visit www.bigten.org.