By Louise M. Perkins, Ph.D., MRA Chief Science Officer | 30 November 2016
Some have the impression that cancer researchers, whether in academia or in industry, toil away in isolation. While there are certainly scientists who work best on their own, collaboration among researchers has become increasingly common, with a goal of achieving the most promising results in the shortest time frame. For MRA, one of our primary objectives is to foster a collaborative research process to further accelerate results for patients. How do we do that? First and foremost, we are able to meet this goal by way of our approach to fostering collaboration via the research we fund.
MRA’s Team Science Award (TSA) Program is the centerpiece of MRA’s research funding portfolio. Multidisciplinary teams consist of Principal Investigators with complementary expertise who may be from the same institution, from different institutions and/or international. Team science projects promote transformational melanoma research advances with the potential for rapid clinical translation. This is a major emphasis in our portfolio of research. Fully 65% of MRA research awards, since our first grant in 2008, have been made to support team science.
Examples of TSAs that we’ve funded include projects led by Suzanne Topalian at Kohn Hopkins and Jedd Wolchok at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center — to name a few — to catalog the behavior of markers that might be used in the clinic to predict who will or will not respond better to immunotherapy. MRA was among the first to support theses types of studies and the results helped lay the foundation for our understanding of PD-L1 as a biomarker for PD-1 therapies in melanoma and other cancers. In addition, MRA has funded TSA work by Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Neal Rosen on BRAF and its inhibition. This is important research since about half of melanoma patients have a mutated BRAF and these individuals are eligible for several FDA-approved BRAF-inhibitor therapies. Rosen’s research along with that of others has advanced the fundamental understanding of BRAF signaling in melanoma and has informed clinical trials of multiple targeted therapy drugs.
Another program fostering collaboration is MRA’s Academic-Industry Partnership Award program. Designed to facilitate interactions between the academic and industrial research sectors, these were introduced in 2011 and are co-funded by MRA and an industrial collaborator whose involvement is essential to the project. This program is open to individual Established Investigators or Research Teams. Examples of inter-disciplinary research fostered by this program include the program recently funded by MRA and Amgen and led by Yvonne Saenger at Columbia University. Dr. Saenger is studying the oncolytic virus, TVEC, in combination with another cutting edge treatment for melanoma, PD-1 checkpoint blockade.
When it comes to drug development, it’s hard to quantify the direct impact of collaborations. Suffice to say that in many business contexts, high-performing teams have been noted to produce outstanding results. But, is every individual and every project suitable for a team solution? Definitely not. Though, when teams of individuals with complimentary characteristics come together with the right goals, right leadership and right incentives, they can do amazing things.
For example, it seems safe to say that every clinical trial that has led to an approved melanoma therapy is a project involving collaborations between numerous researchers from industry and academia. You just can’t get new drugs to patients without collaboration! And, the FDA’s Breakthrough Therapy designation has allowed for more open discussion between FDA and drug developers of the most promising medicines. In melanoma, there have been some very rapid approvals of Breakthrough Therapy drugs, including both pembrolizumab and nivolumab. So, patients have benefited and will continue to benefit from collaborations, now and into the future.
Collaboration is at MRA’s core — from the team research that we fund, to the way we find partners who can help us realize our vision. MRA’s ability to fund wide-ranging research in melanoma is amplified by unique, multi-faceted collaborations and partnerships with individuals, private foundations and corporations.