Reimagining Melanoma Research During and After the Pandemic

By Marc Hurlbert, PhD, MRA Chief Executive Officer | 1 January 2021 | News, Science

Reimagining Melanoma Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched all of our lives – from illnesses and unexpected deaths, to world economies and the careers impacted. Like everything else, melanoma research has also been impacted – from decreased enrollment in clinical trials, to research labs hampered by lock-downs and new protocols.

Although overwhelming negative in its impact, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted what is possible in science and biomedical research when academic institutions, governments and pharmaceutical companies openly collaborate and share data, information, and other resources in near-real time. Treatments and vaccines were quickly developed due to new collaborations and data sharing, including the publication of research results on pre-print servers, in open-access journals, or subscription-based-journals making COVID-19 research content freely available. This allowed research teams to rapidly learn from and build upon the work done by others. Clinical trials were launched and enrolled at record speed, and regulatory bodies across the globe conducted regulatory review at record pace while maintaining rigorous medical standards and transparency. 

At MRA, we contemplate how can melanoma research be reimagined to accelerate progress similar to what has been accomplished with COVID-19. 

Collaboration and Data Sharing

MRA historically has fostered collaboration through funding Team Science Awards and fostering dialogue among our international network of more than 450 funded scientists and advisors through our annual Scientific Retreat. The Retreat has evolved as a ‘safe space’ for scientists to collegially share unpublished data, communicate, network, collaborate and to challenge each other’s preliminary results and their interpretation. 

While COVID-19 may have hampered in-person collaboration, it inspired our team to create new vehicles for sharing, especially among MRA’s network of 175 young investigators.  Toward that end, with the help of our researchers, MRA launched a quarterly online forum for young-investigators. The series is co-chaired by four current Young Investigators: Liron Bar-Peled (Massachusetts General Hospital), Rizwan Haq (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute), Willy Hugo (UCLA), and Rachel Vogel (University of Minnesota). The co-chairs select topics of interest and work with MRA staff to identify speakers. Webinar participants discuss matters critically important to new faculty members, from how to hire and manage your staff, to how to secure funding and manage resources so your laboratory team can succeed. To complement the forums, MRA launched online collaboration channels when investigators can pose questions to one another about resources they need, where to access a particular resource, or barriers they are facing. In addition, these virtual efforts enable open discussions of ongoing research by investigators in specific research areas (e.g., prevention, treatment, drug resistance, rare melanomas).

With COVID, we’ve seen the power of open access and data sharing to quickly advance solutions, and at MRA, we seek to build on those lessons. MRA policy already requires funded investigators to share data from their projects once data has been published. For example, genomics projects place their data in open database resources, such a cBioPortal, so that other investigators can analyze and probe. Starting in 2022, MRA will require all publications emanating from its awards to be made open access within 12-months of publication in the National Library of Medicine’s PubMedCentral, a digital repository of published research. 

Finally, advancing data-sharing to a new realm of what is possible, in 2021, MRA will launch RARE, a prospective registry for patients with acral and mucosal melanoma. RARE will be a free, interactive App (iOS and Android) and web platform where patients can share information on their experiences with these two rare melanomas, including their diagnosis journey, disease history and treatment. A

Gathering data in the RARE registry from hundreds, or even thousands, of melanoma patients will help advance research on these rare melanoma subtypes. Patient-reported data in the RARE registry will be placed in into a publicly available, open-access Research Portal. Making this data available in near real-time will enable more researchers to rapidly study the data rather than waiting for its publication.

Research Resources 

As we’ve seen with COVID, when resources are quickly deployed and shared, science and treatments are accelerated.  At MRA, we’re looking at what resources are needed to do this for melanoma. At our 2020 Scientific Retreat, just before the pandemic lockdowns, MRA convened dozens of scientists to discuss current models used for the study of melanoma and gaps that must be addressed. Thirty-three of these scientists including workshop co-chairs Liz Patton (University of Edinburgh) and Glenn Merlino (National Cancer Institute), alongside the MRA scientific staff, have worked throughout 2020 to develop a review article about melanoma models that will be published later this year, to help guide future efforts.

In another approach to ensuring the right resources, MRA staff have thoroughly reviewed the melanoma literature and talked to dozens of researchers across the globe to assemble a list of models to study acral melanoma. MRA identified this challenge in conversations with researchers who said that lack of access to appropriate models can be a tremendous barrier and can slow down the research process. Coming soon, MRA will launch a “virtual catalog” of available acral melanoma cell lines and a contact person at each university for researchers interested in obtaining these models for use in their own labs. While this endeavor is starting with acral melanoma, we envision similar virtual catalogs of resources developed for a wide variety of barriers in melanoma research. 

Clinical Trials 

Even before COVID-19, cancer research often did not reach optimal speed as only a small fraction of patients participated in clinical trials. To empower patients to learn more about clinical trials, MRA educates patients at our annual forum, develops online education campaigns, and provides a free “Find a Clinical Trial” search engine on our website. 

MRA’s Clinical Trial Navigator, provided in partnership with Antidote is built off the government site, and has empowered more than 10,000 unique users since it was launched at the end of 2017 (today, approximately 350 people each month). The MRA Clinical Trial Navigator provides a “kayak-like experience” to provide patients a list of clinical trials for which they may be eligible after answering a few questions about their condition. Coming in 2021, working closely with patient advocates and physicians, MRA and Antidote are updating the tool to 2.0. The new and improved trial finder aims to streamline the process for patients while also making the results more meaningful and actionable. Updates will also better incorporate finding trials for patients with rare melanoma subtypes, specific genetic mutations, and help patients with earlier stages of disease find appropriate matches (important for adjuvant and neoadjuvant trials).

Melanoma Research Reimagined

The pandemic has provided both time for reflection but also insights into new ways of thinking.  And while the lives lost and the impact of COVID-19 will forever be remembered, at MRA we seek to also take from this experience to answer some of the most challenging questions in melanoma – how to help the half of patients that do not currently respond to available treatments? Why does resistance to treatment develop? How do we treat patients with rare melanoma subtypes (acral, mucosal, uveal, pediatric/adolescent disease)? And how do we advance early detection, diagnosis and prevention research. MRA aims to do its part to reimagine how biomedical research is conducted and how we can help to ‘build back melanoma research better’ during and after the pandemic.