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Learning to Listen to Our Cells: 20 Years of The Society for Melanoma Research with Dr. Meenhard Herlyn

December 14, 2023

Meenhard Herlyn, D.V.M., D.Sc., founded the Society for Melanoma Research 20 years ago at Wistar. The Society’s annual Congress just celebrated its 20th anniversary and presented Dr. Herlyn with the Founders Award, an honor commemorating his work in creating an organization that has been integral to the advancement of melanoma research.

We were told that, before you received the Founders Award, it was supposed to be a surprise. Did they succeed in surprising you?

Oh, they absolutely succeeded. I had not been expecting anything at all. I am not really a surprise person, but I was quite moved by this gesture. Everyone got up — it was a real honor. I felt so energized by the moment that I gave a little spontaneous pep talk.

A pep talk? What did you say?

I spoke about the SMR mission, which is bringing together clinicians and researchers against melanoma. The idea is to bring together the strengths of research and clinical practice — but this can only happen when we are transparent and open. Throughout my career, I’ve found that progress is made by sharing: sharing data, sharing methods, sharing tools — everything! I know that, sometimes, scientists might not show all their data publicly, out of administrative concerns or something — but to me, that is a big no-no, especially in an organization like the SMR. We are proud to be transparent because that is how we move forward.

Do you think that the openness in your field has increased over the years?

Oh, of course; the openness has expanded tremendously, and I’m proud to say that our field stands out for its collaborative approach. We now almost have the opposite problem, where so much data accrue thanks to what we call “omics” technologies (as in, genomics, proteomics, etc.). These datasets require specialized bioinformatics knowledge to interpret because of their complexity and sheer size. My lab has approximately 80 terabytes of data, and I estimate that by this time next year, that quantity will have doubled or even tripled. We have great resources, yes. But we are also searching for needles in haystacks.

Our cells speak to us. They tell us at each and every step how they feel, what they do, and with whom they interact. As researchers, it is our job to listen to what our cells are saying, but that listening is quite difficult. We do our best with modern technology to gather all these signals from RNA, DNA, proteins — and all of this for each cell, tens of thousands of them. It’s like a big crowd, roaring. To listen to the cells, we must sort out the noise from the useful information to see which genes and proteins are talking, telling us what’s wrong.

What inspired you to start the SMR?

20 years ago, we had two communities: we had the researchers, busy in the lab, looking at data; and we had the clinicians, diagnosing and treating patients while relying primarily on clinical experience. At the time, I was working with a very gifted pathologist, Dr. Wallace Clark, and we were investigating melanoma, a field where there was very little progress being made; the treatments worked maybe 2% of the time. While working on the project and trying to obtain samples, I realized how big the gap between researchers and practitioners was. The two groups were each cooking their own soup, not talking to each other. So I figured that bridging the gap was essential for making any progress at all, because having the clinic separate from the lab just wasn’t working. That’s where the idea for the SMR came from.

It wasn’t SMR at first, though. We were the Noreen O’Neil Foundation for Melanoma Research. Noreen was a melanoma patient who saw that there was very little melanoma research, and she also recognized that this had to change. She spoke with her clinician, Dr. DuPond Guerry, and we began the work of putting together the organization. Unfortunately, Noreen died of her illness, and so her sister Kate O’Neil took over. With their generosity, we had $50,000 in the bank, which gave us two options. The first was awarding grants, of which we could award two and then the money would be gone. Or, we could use the money to set up a meeting for melanoma researchers and clinicians. So we got to work finding a space, inviting speakers, making sure that the lab perspectives were balanced with the clinical perspectives — and the Congress was born.

The first SMR Congress was an enormous success. We decided to hold it in a new city every year after, to keep it fresh and exciting, but having the 20th anniversary back in Philadelphia where it started was a nice touch.

How far have you come, and how much further do you have to go?

We have many miles to go yet, but I’m proud to look back on the progress we’ve made. Not only scientifically, but also in terms of widening the community. Researchers and clinicians work together against melanoma now, sharing their insights with each other — that shows the power of openness in science. I’m especially proud of the work that my colleague Dr. Jessie Villanueva is doing for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in science. Science only works when people come together to solve problems; there can be no room for exclusion or bias because everyone’s insight is needed to advance the field.

On the other hand, we need to keep pushing forward. With the frequency of melanoma cases rising, research is more important than ever; keep in mind that, for all the advances the field has seen, we can still only successfully treat 50% of patients long-term. When every other patient eventually dies of their illness, that tells you just how vital it is to keep up the work. Only by bringing more talent into the fold across disciplines will we be able to sustain progress against this cancer.