MRA Stories

It might have been easy to get caught up in the glitz and glamour of a star-studded Hollywood event this past week in LA as Stand Up To Cancer held its latest prime-time broadcast in support of cancer research.

After all, some of us had the chance to enter the historic theater via a red-carpet lined with paparazzi.  And during the show itself, every few minutes for the entire hour a different A-list celebrity appeared on the stage.

But there was something much more personal and powerful going on in that room where celebrities were coming together with cancer researchers and doctors, foundations, corporations, patients and their families.  It was the sense of hope and promise that these cancer survivors brought to the event that made it most impactful.   Their courage, resilience and resolve is what inspires me most.  The evening really brought home just how important it is for all of us to work together in collaborations that will defeat cancer in all of its forms.

I was fortunate to be there on behalf of the Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA), saluting the life-saving work of our MRA-SU2C Melanoma Dream Team and the Melanoma component of the CRI-SU2C Immunology Dream Team.  These brilliant scientists and physicians have dedicated their professional lives to understanding how melanoma works and designing ways to stop this deadly killer in its tracks.

SU2C Kathy Thomas and Dr. Toni Ribas

 

It was an honor to meet one of the melanoma patients profiled during the broadcast – a lovely woman named Kathy whose doctor, Toni Ribas from UCLA, is an MRA-funded investigator and member of our Medical Advisory Panel.   Despite having been extremely sick as a result of her cancer just months ago, Kathy is now back to living her life, thanks to the exciting progress that has been made in delivering new immunotherapy treatments.  Kathy’s strong desire to be there for her children and new grandchild, brings home the promise and hope we all feel as a result of recent progress, including new therapies like the anti-PD-1 therapy approved just last week by the FDA.

But even with all of the good news coming in the melanoma field, we know that our work is far from finished.   For every story like Kathy’s, there are still too many stories of people who are suffering from this beast.  As I write this, we have just learned of the tragic loss of a young woman named Jackie to this terrible disease.   She was only 22 and, though she fought with such grace and courage for more than two years, she passed away this week.

And that’s why MRA, working with our partners at Stand Up To Cancer and dozens of other allies across sectors, won’t rest until we’ve arrived at the day when no one suffers or dies from melanoma.  That’s why we’ve just launched our next Request For Proposals soliciting high-impact projects from researchers around the world.   We plan to fund at least $7 million in our next grant cycle, building upon the $60 million we’ve already invested.  And that’s why we seek to engage more people in our mission through alliances and collaborations to fund more life-saving research to accelerate progress toward cures for melanoma.

About the Author

Wendy Selig 2013 Wendy K.D. Selig is President and CEO of the Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA), a public charity focused on finding and funding the most promising translational melanoma research worldwide that will accelerate progress toward a cure.  Ms. Selig drives and manages MRA’s strategic priorities, research portfolio, engagement with more than 90 corporate and non-profit Allies, and day-to-day operations. MRA, founded by Debra and Leon Black under the auspices of the Milken Institute, is the largest private funder of melanoma research.

 

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Immunotherapy Science Mag Cover

For those of you keeping a close eye on the field of melanoma treatments, you know that we find ourselves living in a simply amazing period of opportunity and innovation—even though there is still a long way to go.

The creation of new cancer drugs is pharmaceutical alchemy, transmuting a base idea into a life-prolonging new treatment that is both safe and effective.  While not magic, drug development is an expensive, incredibly complex and time-consuming process.  And when it works well—when there are exceptionally promising treatments near at hand—the wait for full availability to those agents can be frustrating beyond measure.

Such is the case right now with certain immunotherapy drugs that stimulate the patient’s immune system to recognize and attack cancer.  The data with these immunotherapies targeting the PD-1/PD-L1 axis (anti-PD-1 drugs) is so encouraging that three have earned U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Breakthrough Therapy designation* which aims to speed FDA approval of the most promising drugs.

This is fantastic, but how are promising drugs made available to patients in the pre-approval period?

To accelerate the accessibility of new drugs to patients, drug developers may open so-called Expanded Access Programs (EAP).  EAPs are compassionate use programs whereby drugs are made available to patients before they are fully approved for sale by the FDA.  EAPs consume resources from treatment centers and drug companies alike, but EAPs endeavor to do the right thing to help patients before drug approval and sale. MRA is proud to have been part of the conversation with companies, clinicians and the FDA that encouraged and facilitated the opening of the anti-PD-1 drug EAPs.

So, why talk about EAPs and anti-PD-1 drugs right now?

Because melanoma is once again a case study for the cutting edge. Presently, three EAPs for melanoma are open with similarly targeted agents (the anti-PD-1 antibodies). Merck’s pembrolizumab was the first EAP to open for melanoma in March 2014, followed by BMS’ nivolumab EAP in May.  Most recently, in July, BMS launched an EAP for the combination of nivolumab with its anti-CTLA4 drug, ipilimumab.  This may not sound like much, but to have three EAPs at the same time for the same cancer is unprecedented.  To have this happen with the same type of drug is nothing short of amazing!

While anti-PD-1 treatments don’t work for everyone and do have certain side-effects, MRA and others are funding research to overcome these limitations.  Nevertheless, the demonstrated progress against melanoma fuels the hope that we’ll look back to 2014 and say, “That was the year everything changed.”

 

*Note: Merck’s anti-PD-1 pembrolizumab received Breakthrough Therapy designation for melanoma in May 2013; BMS’ anti-PD-1 nivolumab received Breakthrough Therapy designation for Hodgkin Lymphoma in May 2014; Genentech/Roche’s anti-PD-L1 MPDL-3280A received Breakthrough Therapy designation for bladder cancer in June 2014.

 

Louise Perkins Headshot

About the Author

Louise M. Perkins, Ph.D., joined the Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA) as Chief Science Officer in 2013 where she is responsible for the development and implementation of MRA’s scientific strategy.  Her interests center on translational research with specific concentration on genomics, drug discovery and the advancement of novel therapeutic approaches. Prior to joining MRA, she was Chief Scientific Officer at the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF) for five years following a research career of 16 years at two major pharmaceutical companies.

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