Posted May 25, 2022
David E. Fisher, M.D., Ph.D., Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University
Michael A. Davies, M.D., Ph.D., University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
Vivian Chua, Ph.D., Thomas Jefferson University Ashley Holder, M.D., University of Alabama at Birmingham
May is Melanoma and Skin Cancer Awareness Month. In support of awareness efforts, the Melanoma Research Program (MRP) will run a series of features this month highlighting some exciting new initiatives from the program and the people without whom the MRP could not achieve its Vision. This installment introduces the awardees for the FY21 Melanoma Academy Leadership and Scholar Awards.
The Mission of the MRP is to promote earlier interventions to enhance mission readiness and diminish melanoma burden on Service Members, Veterans, and the American public. One means to achieve this goal is to invest in developing and establishing the future leaders of the melanoma field. To this end, in fiscal year 2021 (FY21) the MRP solicited applications for the Melanoma Academy Leadership Award (MALA) and the Melanoma Academy Scholar Award (MASA) to launch the Melanoma Academy (MA). The MA is a unique and interactive virtual academy focused on creating relationships between established leaders in melanoma research and/or patient care (Director and Deputy Director) and early-career investigators (Scholars). As part of the MA, Scholars will be part of a peer group that receives intensive mentoring, exposure to national networking, and opportunities to collaborate with a diverse group of melanoma experts.
Meet the FY21 Melanoma Academy Leadership
Director: David E. Fisher, M.D., Ph.D., Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University Deputy Director: Michael A. Davies, M.D., Ph.D., University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
The recipients of the FY21 MALA are Dr. David Fisher and Dr. Michael Davies, two globally renowned leaders in the melanoma research community.* Dr. Fisher serves as the Director of both the Cancer Center’s Interdisciplinary Melanoma Program and the Cutaneous Biology Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, and will be the Director of the Academy. Dr. Davies will be the Deputy Director of the Academy. He is Chair of Department of Melanoma Medical Oncology, the Co-Director of the Melanoma Moonshot Program, and Principal Investigator of the NIH-funded SPORE in Melanoma at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The pair brings extensive mentorship and research experience to the MA and they are well poised to provide the mentorship needed for the Scholars to grow into the next generation of leaders in the melanoma field.
Dr. Fisher’s and Dr. Davies’ vision for the MA comprises transforming melanoma prevention research by supporting research that is responsive to the MRP Challenge Statement: leveraging advances from late-stage melanoma to focus on preventing initiation, progression, and metastasis; establishing mentorships that emphasize collaboration and growth; and integrating input from Veterans of the U.S. Military Services and patient advocates into the research and mentorship process. As MA Leadership, they will support the Scholars by employing a mentorship approach based off of five pillars (Figure 1): 1) scientific learning, 2) professional development, 3) collaboration and networking, 4) communication skill-building, and 5) managing a high-integrity research program.
Figure 1: MA Leadership approach to mentoring.
In additon to the expertise of Drs. Fisher and Davies, Scholars will have access to a vast array of expertise through several Advisory Panels. This includes a multidisciplinary panel of General Advisors who will serve as secondary mentors to the Scholars, a Patient Advocacy and Veteran Advisor panel to help Scholars maximize the impact of their melanoma research, and a Special Advisor for Faculty Support and Well-Being to ensure Scholars are mindful of maintaining a work-life balance throughout their careers. As part of the MA activities, Scholars will meet several times a year in one-on-one meetings with Drs. Fisher and Davies and the various Advisors, participate in monthly MA workshops, and attend annual meetings focused on sharing research progress and collaboration. Additionally, Scholars will be involved in pilot projects initiated by the MA Leadership that address the MRP’s challenge of redefining the concept of prevention. These projects are designed to couple novelty with feasibility and have specific measures built in for evaluating the outcomes. Ultimately, the MA aims to impact and accelerate melanoma research in the near- and long-term by providing melanoma Scholars unprecedented access to resources in a virtual platform that is beyond what they would have achieved from any single institution or Career Guide.
Meet the FY21 Melanoma Academy Scholars
In addition to participating in the MA activities introduced above, MASA recipients receive funding to perform individual research projects that may be basic, translational, and/or clinical in nature, with the mentorship of a Career Guide. For the inaugural class in FY21, the MRP awarded the MASA to two early-career investigators, Dr. Vivian Chua and Dr. Ashley Holder.*
Slow proliferation of BAP1 mutant uveal melanoma cells and its role in metastasis
Scholar: Vivian Chua, Ph.D., Thomas Jefferson University
Career Guide: Takami Sato, M.D., Ph.D., Thomas Jefferson University
Uveal melanoma (UM) is the deadliest form of eye cancer. Although primary tumors within the eye can be successfully treated, approximately 50% of UM patients have a chance of developing metastatic disease, which could take as long as 20 years to develop. This delay may be due to tumor cells undergoing dormancy or quiescence at the metastatic site. Because of the lack of effective treatment options to treat metastatic UM, patients usually have a poor prognosis and a life expectancy of only 5-18 months. Dr. Chua received this FY21 MASA to study how loss of the tumor suppressor BRCA1-associated protein 1 (BAP1) or inactivating mutations within the gene, BAP1, may contribute to UM metastasis. In previous studies, she showed that BAP1-deficient or BAP1 mutant UM cells proliferated slower than cells with normally functioning BAP1. She will study whether the slow proliferation state leads to tumor dormancy, and whether the environment of certain metastatic sites, such as the liver, induce increased proliferation that leads to tumor growth. In response to the MRP Challenge Statement, the outcomes of this research will contribute towards understanding the mechanisms that promote metastasis of UM and could lead to identifying strategies to prevent metastasis and disease recurrence.
Macrophage Regulation of the Tumor Microenvironment in Metastatic Melanoma
Scholar: Ashley Holder, M.D., University of Alabama at Birmingham
Career Guide: Genevieve Boland, M.D., Ph.D., Harvard Medical School
Dr. Holder received her FY21 MASA to examine the role of macrophages, a type of immune cell, in melanoma progression and determine how they promote the spread of primary tumor cells to lymph nodes (LNs). Preliminary data show that there is a correlation between a higher prevalence of macrophages in LNs and increased incidence of metastatic disease. During this award, Dr. Holder will test the hypothesis that macrophages promote metastasis through LNs by altering the tumor draining LN environment. Furthermore, she will explore the hypothesis that macrophages that travel from the primary tumor to the LN can alter gene expression in LN immune cells to downregulate the immune system, thereby promoting metastasis. In response to the MRP Challenge Statement, Dr. Holder hopes to apply the outcomes of this project to develop a therapeutic that would be injected into the tumor before surgical resection to prevent macrophage migration to LNs, which could eliminate metastases and potentially lead to increased survival of melanoma patients.
*Pending final FY21 award negotiations.