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Wistar’s Women and Science Program Talks Melanoma Research

June 29, 2021

After a day of virtual scientific talks that concluded Wistar’s 4th annual Noreen O’Neill Melanoma Research Symposium, a lay-friendly examination of melanoma with a group of interdisciplinary scientists continued into the evening during the Women & Science event Advances in Melanoma and Skin Cancer Research.

Distinguished epidemiologist Dr. Marianne Berwick, from the University of New Mexico, and Wistar Drs. Chengyu Liang, Jessie Villanueva, and Noam Auslander met for a roundtable discussion on melanoma research, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment advances. Dr. Maureen Murphy moderated a lively exchange that touched on the history of melanoma up to the latest solutions to treat and prevent this dangerous skin cancer.

Dr. Berwick kicked off the conversation by addressing why melanoma seems much more prevalent than in the past.

“We wear less clothing, we test for skin cancer with more biopsies, and people spend more time indoors,” says Berwick. “Melanoma incidence increased because we are not covered by our clothes like we were during Victorian times. Also, we have more sensitive detection tools and folks that spend a lot of time indoors then get intermittent but intense sun exposure, increasing the risk of sunburns and developing melanoma.”

Berwick went on to remind the audience of the ABCDs of melanoma and how important it is to know our bodies as any changes in Asymmetry, Border, Color, and Diameter (no wider than a pencil eraser) can be a sign of melanoma.

Cancer researcher Dr. Chengyu Liang spoke of melanoma treatment and why it’s so stubborn to treat.

“For some patients with melanoma, we have different treatments to stimulate their immune system. We can use immunotherapy—finding the wolf (or cancer) in sheep’s clothing, or we can use targeted therapy—finding a way to stop or put on the brakes of an out-of-control car,” says Liang. “Wistar is a front runner in melanoma-targeted therapies and Wistar’s cell bank is vital in the research and treatments that have been accomplished thanks to Dr. Meenhard Herlyn’s lab.”

Dr. Liang joined Wistar less than a year ago and is recognized for her study of melanoma development and progression, with a particular focus on autophagy, or “self-eating”— a process in which cells digest and recycle waste.

“We now can have many patients survive and have their disease controlled through targeted or immunotherapy or a hybrid combo therapy,” said Liang. “But we want 100% survival, and we want to know the right therapy for the right patient at the right time.”

Dr. Jessie Villanueva is a research leader in how tumor cells become resistant. She discussed the challenges of therapy resistance in melanoma—when tumors become indifferent to drugs and escape therapy.

“Some tumors rewire and bypass the effect of the drugs,” says Villanueva. “Sometimes treatment works great for a period, but then tumors become resistant. The genetic make-up of the cancer cells is highly variable within tumors, and even from one another, so drugs can work on some cells but not others. Cancer cells that ‘escape’ treatment can remain asleep and then can be triggered to reawaken, which leads to tumor relapse.”

Dr. Villanueva is developing ways to target NRAS mutations in melanoma.

“The tumors that I work on harbor mutations in NRAS and account for 25-30% of all melanomas,” says Villanueva. “These tumors are highly aggressive and can spread to other organs. NRAS acts as a molecular switch controlling (molecular) signals that instruct the cell to grow or proliferate. A mutation in NRAS breaks the molecular switch, causing cells to proliferate indefinitely and accumulate additional mutations.”

Villanueva continued, “At Wistar, we have the tools and sophisticated models to mimic what happens in a patient’s tumor and we have faculty with diverse skills and backgrounds—from cancer biology, proteomics, and structural biology—to develop novel drugs to combat drug resistant melanoma.”

Dr. Noam Auslander is a computer scientist and uses artificial intelligence to interpret biomedical research data and extract and identify new information. She joined Wistar in June and focuses on the question of who responds to which cancer treatments.

“I do computational work and analyze data sets to generate research questions,” says Auslander. “I build predictors for treatment responses to predict who will respond and who will be resistant. Using these predictors and evaluating large scale data sets for the next drug targets, I hope to find new solutions to drug resistance.”

Before the event ended, the scientists shared challenges or helpful advice they considered key to their success and reminded the attendees to check and protect their skin.