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Wistar Melanoma Researchers Discuss Risks and Solutions for Melanoma Awareness Month

Three of The Wistar Institute’s foremost melanoma researchers: professor Meenhard Herlyn, D.V.M., D.Sc.; associate professor Jessie Villanueva, Ph.D.; and assistant professor Noam Auslander, Ph.D. discussed the progress and potential in melanoma research. Each brings their own distinct expertise to the field of melanoma research with decades of combined experience, and in reflecting on the state of the field, Drs. Herlyn, Villanueva, and Auslander covered both how they came to melanoma research and how they continue to tackle the challenge of this disease every single day at Wistar.

There are a lot of cancers out there. What brought you to melanoma?

Dr. Noam Auslander: As someone who works on the computational side of things, I was attracted to melanoma research mainly because of the quantity of data. In science generally but in computational science in particular, more data is better — because that allows researchers to design high-fidelity models, which, with cancer, can lead to all sorts of benefits, like predictions of who will respond to what therapy, or which genetic patterns are implicated in a cancer.

I can access and analyze melanoma data in large batches simply because there’s a lot of it. Part of that is because it’s a common cancer — which isn’t a good thing — but because it’s both common and a subject of study for more than 40 years, that allows my team and I to improve our models.

Dr. Jessie Villanueva: For me, melanoma research began as pure scientific interest. Melanoma is an aggressive cancer, and when I started as a postdoctoral fellow, there were no approved targeted therapies or immunotherapies; if chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery all failed, there really weren’t other options.

That problem attracted me to the field as a scientist who wants to solve problems, and shortly afterward, the professional interest became a personal one: a childhood friend whom I’d known since kindergarten was diagnosed with melanoma, and not long after that, so was my uncle. Unfortunately, my uncle passed away, but my friend survived, and that combination of loss and hope solidified melanoma as something I wanted to dedicate myself toward working against.

Dr. Meenhard Herlyn: My story is not so inspiring. I was young — so I suppose it was something like a hundred years ago — but my boss told me to help him with a melanoma project, and that was that. But I was very lucky, because that project involved a man named Wallace Clark: a great pathologist of the disease, whose research laid the foundation for much of what we know today about melanoma. Much of his work was characterizing these melanoma cells under a microscope — a necessary first step — and thinking of stories in his mind about how they might behave. Characterizing and theorizing. So as a young scientist, I thought to myself, “we must find a way to fill in these stories with real data.” And I’ve followed that ever since.

There are other skin cancers; melanoma is just a subtype. What makes it so dangerous?

J.V.: Melanoma comes from cells that originally have an innate level of pluripotency (the ability to transform into different cell types); they have remarkable migratory abilities; and they give rise to a diverse array of cell types throughout the body. When those cells become cancerous, they are highly plastic and skilled at adapting to their environment. This plasticity also allows melanoma to evade treatment and become drug-resistant. Drug resistance is a big problem in the field; often when using drugs targeting one pathway, the tumors find an alternative pathway to exploit.

By collectively studying all the inner workings of melanoma — like its genetics (the kind of mutations it collects), epigenetics (how genes are turned on or off), and signaling pathways (controlling processes like cell growth, proliferation, and survival) — we aim to develop strategies that prevent tumors from evading treatment. We’ve made great progress treating melanoma, but tumors still develop strategies to bypass therapies. This ongoing challenge drives our relentless search for innovative and effective solutions, fueled by the hope of achieving cures and improving the lives of melanoma patients.

N.A.: Melanoma is associated with an unusually high inter- and intra-tumor heterogeneity; the mutational profile is exceptionally complex between different melanoma cells and even within melanoma cells. That’s why large-scale data analysis of melanoma with computational models isn’t just important but necessary — patterns that can help us fight this cancer exist, but distinguishing between patterns and noise both within a tumor and between tumors requires the help of advanced computational techniques.

Meenhard has talked about how we need to listen to cells, and that’s how I try to help Meenhard & Jessie’s work: by fine-tuning computer systems to listen for signals amid the chaos in cancer.

M.H.: We also have to remember that the cells that become melanoma are highly mobile by their very nature. As Jessie said, melanocytes have a certain amount of innate plasticity, which contributes to the cancer’s aggression once a melanocyte goes from normal to cancerous.

But that wouldn’t necessarily be as big a problem if it weren’t for these cells’ motility. When you have aggressive cancer cells moving throughout the body, that creates a situation that lends itself to metastasis. A skin cancer that isn’t melanoma doesn’t present as much danger because it’s probably more localized; I’m not saying that’s not serious, but a non-metastatic tumor on the skin is a lot easier to treat — at the simplest level, you just cut it off. With melanoma, once that diagnosis comes, the clock is ticking to stop the cancer before the metastatic impulse gets out of control.

More people are getting melanoma, with U.S. incidence up by more than 50% since 1999. Why do you think that is, and how can people protect themselves?

J.V.: The short answer is that we don’t yet know for sure — there are several ongoing epidemiological studies which we expect will provide clear answers. Lifestyle is a big part of it. Outdoor activity can be healthy; however, being outdoors means more sun & UV exposure. Anecdotally, since the pandemic, we’ve noticed more people spending more time outdoors. And that’s a risk factor.

We’re seeing a sharp increase in melanoma for young people, particularly young women. Cancer tends to be correlated with age — the older we get, the higher the probability of having cancer — but melanoma is the most frequently developed cancer in people in their 20s and 30s.

M.H.: I agree that lifestyle is probably a big factor in the increase in cases. Everything from tanning beds to taking a vacation to lie on the beach is going to give UV rays more opportunity to cause damage that could lead to melanoma. Sunlight feels good to everyone, but unprotected exposure is harmful. People get addicted to damaging UV because our skin secretes endorphins when exposed to UV, and that’s more reason to be cautious.

It’s true that people with less melanin in their skin are more at risk — which is why, for example, more leisure travel from countries in the Global North to equatorial regions that get more sun probably causes more melanoma overall — but everyone has skin, which means anyone can get melanoma. And that’s why awareness of exposure risk is so important.

Wistar’s Jessie Villanueva, Ph.D., Receives ‘Diversity in Business’ Award

The Philadelphia Business Journal recognizes cancer scientist’s leadership in DEI

PHILADELPHIA—(Feb. 12, 2024)—Jessie Villanueva, Ph.D. — associate professor in the Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program and associate director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Ellen and Ronald Caplan Cancer Center is one of the recipients of the 2024 Diversity in Business Award from the Philadelphia Business Journal.

The Diversity in Business Award is an annual distinction presented to select honorees from the Greater Philadelphia area who “are making strides in their own ways toward greater inclusion within the Philadelphia region’s workplaces.” Dr. Villanueva and her fellow honorees will be celebrated at a February 15th event at the Fitler Club in Center City, Philadelphia, and with a special February 16 issue commemorating their achievements in the Philadelphia Business Journal.

“It’s a tremendous honor to be among this year’s Diversity in Business Award winners,” said Dr. Villanueva. “I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished at The Wistar Institute — Building on our culture of inclusive excellence, we are committed to shaping a biomedical research environment that incorporates diversity and inclusion across every facet, from the laboratory to the boardroom. Embracing an array of experiences ensures that diverse individuals contribute a myriad of perspectives, positioning us at the forefront of biomedical research. Together with every member of the Institute, we are shaping a future where diversity and inclusion fuel innovation.”

Since late 2019, Dr. Villanueva has served as the associate director of The Wistar Institute’s Inclusion Diversity, and Equity initiative. With staff from more than 20 countries from around the world, Wistar is building upon a foundational commitment to diversity, equity & inclusion.

“Jessie’s efforts are truly inspirational,” said Dario C. Altieri, M.D., Wistar president & CEO, director of the Ellen and Ronald Caplan Cancer Center and the Robert and Penny Fox Distinguished Professor. “We do not make scientific progress unless we have everyone at the table, and Jessie works to make sure both early-career and seasoned researchers from underrepresented groups can come to Wistar and make an impact. Jessie leads by example; she is a respected melanoma researcher with a research lab comprised of a diverse group of staff. We are very proud to see Dr. Villanueva receive this honor.”

The Wistar Institute, the first independent, nonprofit biomedical research institute in the United States, marshals the talents of an international team of outstanding scientists through a culture of biomedical collaboration and innovation. Wistar scientists are focused on solving some of the world’s most challenging and important problems in the field of cancer, infectious disease, and immunology. Wistar has been producing groundbreaking advances in world health for more than a century, consistent with its legacy of leadership in biomedical research and a track record of life-saving contributions in immunology and cell biology.

Wistar’s Inaugural Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Survey Helps Chart a Path Forward 

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has historically been a priority for The Wistar Institute. Creating a diverse and inclusive environment not only attracts top-tier talent, but it also supports innovation, creativity, and a commitment to collaboration amongst existing staff.

Since it was established in 2021, The Wistar Institute’s Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity (W-IDE) council, under the leadership of Dr. Jessie Villanueva, has been focused on further enabling an inclusive culture. As part of the effort, the Wistar Institute, recently issued a DEI survey to gather its staff’s perspectives on enabling a culture of equity, diversity and inclusion as well as establish a baseline for further evaluation long-term. Feedback from the W-IDE council was integral in the anonymous survey that was developed and administered by an independent consultant, ADI.

With a response rate of approximately 71% — a rate that surpassed many peer organizations at this phase — Wistar staff sent a clear signal that they value DEI initiatives and are engaged in the efforts. And the overarching results were encouraging: a strong majority (nearly 97% of respondents) agree that Wistar fosters a supportive, welcoming, and inclusive environment.

The survey included a total of 39 questions organized across six different categories. Responses were rated on a scale of one to eight, with a rating of “1” being the lowest and “8” being the highest.

“We want to be in the range of six to eight on the scale,” explained Dr. Villanueva during a presentation of the results. “Every single category that was surveyed had a score higher than six. That’s something that we can all be proud of.”

The category that had the highest score was manager and PI feedback. “That indicates that leaders in the Institute are being very effective, fostering an inclusive and diverse environment,” said Dr. Villanueva.

Another area of strength for Wistar is providing support opportunities for those who need it: The survey revealed that 90% of staff believe that they have at least one colleague that they can reach out to for support.

Vice president of Human Resources Jo-Ann Mendel emphasized that DEI efforts require broad support and collaboration to achieve the best outcomes. “This is not something that we can do ourselves. We need to build partnerships and make sure we all contribute to the success of these plans,” she explained. “Together we will be able to accomplish our goals.”

Moving forward, the W-IDE council is partnering with departments and stakeholders throughout Wistar to address some areas for improvement revealed by the survey. For instance, the results suggested that people felt that Wistar does not properly recognize and give credit to those who contribute to the success of the institution. “We heard you and we plan to develop better strategies to recognize those folks,” said Dr. Villanueva.

“This survey is just the beginning,” commented Dr. Villanueva. “We have established additional channels to provide for all members of the institute to give us additional feedback.”

For more information, or if you have any questions or comments about the survey or our plans to enhance diversity, please feel free to contact the W-IDE council at or leave us a comment online.

Small gene, big problem: Dr. Jessie Villanueva works to better understand how a small protein affects melanoma growth

Dr. Jessie Villanueva, associate professor, Molecular & Cellular Oncogenesis Program, and associate director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at The Wistar Institute, and her team are working to understand how certain melanoma tumors bypass treatment. Her goal? To discover a strategy that blocks melanoma’s critical pathways and contributes to the development of treatments for patients who have few therapeutic options.

Learn more about Dr. Villanueva’s work in a recent Philadelphia Business Journal feature.

A New Principal Investigator Award Supports First Project

Advancing High-Risk / High Reward Science

In 2016, The Wistar Institute established the Wistar Science Accelerator Awards through the generosity of the Tobin-Kestenbaum Family, the Schaeffer Family, and the Philadelphia Health Care Trust. Ever since then, the awards have been providing internal seed funding of up to $125,000 a year to principal investigators (PIs), postdoctoral fellows, and industry partners that support innovative, investigator-initiated research, and have the potential to support the development of preliminary observations into robust intellectual property positions.

The Wistar Science Accelerator Awards welcome proposals from Wistar postdoctoral fellows, PIs, and partners with early-stage research in a range of life science areas, including therapeutics, diagnostics, drug delivery technologies, and enabling technologies for drug discovery. Each project is evaluated by a scientific advisory committee on its overall potential for impact, including its scientific and technical merit, its development needs, and the commercial prospects of the technology.

A New Principal Investigator Award Supports First Project

A goal of the Bold Science//Global Impact strategic plan and ensuing capital campaign is to expand the Institute’s translational ecosystem by increasing the number of Wistar Science Accelerator Awards that we can provide to our faculty. Joe Goldblum, a member of Wistar’s Board of Trustees and a dedicated Wistar philanthropist, was early to step up and commit to fund an additional investigator award — The Goldblum Family Healthcare Fund Principal Investigator Award.

Following the careful scientific review of the submitted applications by the science advisory committee, Joe, with input from Wistar leadership, selected to fund a project from Dr. Jessie Villanueva’s lab that focuses on finding therapies for drug-resistant melanoma. This project had personal significance for Joe as he lost his grandfather to melanoma and had been a member of Wistar’s Melanoma Research Center Advisory Board since he joined Wistar’s Board of Trustees. For Joe and his family, it was also important to invest philanthropically in high-risk, high-reward projects that enhance inclusion in STEM professions. Dr. Villanueva grew up in Peru and is leading Wistar’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs.

The Project

The project Dr. Villanueva is working on focuses on finding new therapeutics for drug resistant melanoma. Despite significant progress and improved treatments, about 70% of melanoma patients do not obtain sustained benefit from FDA-approved therapies and experience disease progression. Melanomas that are resistant to MAPK inhibitors (MAPKi-R), including those that harbor mutations in the NRAS gene (NRASmut), have exceptionally poor prognosis and no efficacious second line therapies. Thus, developing rational approaches to combat MAPKi-R tumors, especially those driven by oncogenic NRAS, is urgently needed. Dr. Villanueva’s team has identified S6 kinase 2 (S6K2) as a critical therapeutic vulnerability in NRASmut MAPKi-R melanoma. Moreover, they have identified a unique approach and developed novel S6K2 inhibitors to target this class of tumors. Her long-term research goal, which the Goldblum Family Healthcare Fund will advance, is to develop novel therapeutic strategies to give patients with drug resistant melanoma effective treatment options.

Scientists Drive Innovation at Wistar’s Ellen and Ronald Caplan Cancer Center

Wistar continues to be a dynamic environment prepared to tackle biomedical challenges in a collaborative, innovative, and inclusive culture. Read more about our Ellen and Ronald Caplan Cancer Center commitment to scientific career development, a diverse research community, and how previously introduced recruits are settling in and advancing impactful science.


Italo Tempera, Ph.D., newly appointed Associate Director for Cancer Research Career Enhancement, was a postdoctoral fellow at Wistar and returned as an associate professor in the Gene Expression and Regulation Program in 2020. His research focuses on epigenetic mechanisms behind Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV). He was recently named associate director for Cancer Research Career Enhancement.

Tempera considers the time he spent at Wistar to be formative. With its very collaborative introductory environment, Wistar is an “… opportunity for our students not only to learn about our science but to get in contact with scientists.”

Furthermore, he outlines what he would like to accomplish in his new role. “We’re outstanding scientists and we have excellent mentors. The opportunities for our trainees to do an internship with different departments is something we want to push forward, and we want to expand the Cancer Biology Ph.D. program that we have now with Saint Joseph’s University.”

He shares that Wistar gave him the opportunity to grow as a scientist and advance in his research career. “When someone asks what was one of the most important aspects of a scientist’s pre- or post-doctoral training, my goal is for the trainee to think back and reply that being at Wistar has made all the difference.”

Jessie Villanueva, Ph.D., newly appointed Associate Director for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, joined Wistar first as a postdoctoral fellow and then was appointed assistant professor in the Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program. Her work aims to identify targets for therapy to treat melanoma.

“Diversity leads to innovation and scientific excellence. New discoveries and scientific breakthroughs often rely on collaborations, and diverse teams are more creative and resourceful,” she shares.

For her new role, Villanueva aims to lead and inspire everyone at Wistar to integrate inclusion, diversity, and equity into all facets of the Institute. “Our goal is to continue fostering an inclusive community where everyone can develop to their full potential while contributing to Wistar’s mission of scientific discoveries.” To accomplish this, she plans to work with leaders and stakeholders across the Institute to identify challenges and areas for
improvement and propose strategies to address them.

“Diversity supports Wistar’s mission,” Villanueva asserts. She elaborates that many of the Institute’s scientific breakthroughs are largely impactful for biomedical sciences and human health, and these discoveries rely on “… outstanding scientists, trainees and staff with diverse backgrounds and skills who support Wistar’s goals wholeheartedly.”


Nan Zhang, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Immunology, Microenvironment & Metastasis Program, joined Wistar in September 2021 as an assistant professor and currently researches how immune cells play a role in tumor growth in abdominal cancers.

“Studying disease was always one of my passions,” Zhang shares as he describes both a personal and professional draw to cancer research. He began his career studying the immune system — particularly macrophages, a special population of white blood cells that removes unwanted materials in the body like harmful microorganisms or dead cells.

Upon completion of his postdoctoral position, Zhang felt that cancer in the peritoneal space — the area of the body encompassing the abdomen and the organs within it — would be a great direction to pursue for his future career because of its unique complexity and how it’s less understood relative to other focus areas for cancer research. This is what he works on now at Wistar.

Immersed in the Institute’s world class techniques, resources, and renowned scientists, Zhang continues to push forward his research to tackle how to use specialized cells called macrophages to combat tumors as a checkpoint therapy for cancer. He is also investigating immunological questions about the microenvironment of the peritoneal space and how this knowledge can help inform therapeutics and treatment development.

He shares, “Wistar is competitive, and the support in the Institute for junior faculty is great. We have meetings every week and this is an environment I really wanted for my career and research.”

Noam Auslander, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Molecular & Cellular Oncogenesis Program, joined Wistar in June 2021 as an assistant professor and conducts her research at the intersection of computer science and biological science. She uses machine learning to investigate genetic factors underpinning cancer evolution to improve diagnostics and therapeutics.

“I work on cancer and viruses. Both are complex and have high mutation rates. As a computational scientist, it’s very interesting because there are a lot of computational challenges that can be investigated,” Auslander comments.

She joined The Wistar Institute because of its reputation and expertise, particularly in researching both cancer and viruses. She shares her experience during her first year, “It’s a small institute with a lot of opportunities to collaborate. It’s a very good environment and people are very helpful and supportive.”

Simultaneous to establishing and expanding her lab group, Auslander is currently looking into improving clinical prognosis to cancer and other diseases by uncovering unknown infectious agents and therapeutic biomarkers. To accomplish this, her lab applies the power of advanced computational platforms to very intricate and complex biomedical data to make these predictors of treatment responses more biologically interpretable. She says, “My main focus at the moment is to train my growing lab and develop frameworks to identify new viruses and eventually new microbiomes in cancer.”

Wistar’s Women and Science Program Talks Melanoma Research

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.