M. D. Anderson receives SPORE grant for melanoma research

10/15/04

$11.5 million grant spurs research for cancer with fastest growing incidence

HOUSTON - The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center has been awarded by the National Cancer Institute its ninth SPORE grant - the first such grant ever awarded exclusively for melanoma research.

The five-year, $11.5 million Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant acknowledges M. D. Anderson's leading translational research program. With the addition of the new grant, M. D. Anderson now holds a total of nine SPOREs - more than any other institution - and continues to rank first nationwide in the number of research grants and grant dollars received from the NCI.

Elizabeth Grimm, Ph.D., professor in M. D. Anderson's Department of Experimental Therapeutics, is the director of the latest SPORE grant, which will give a boost to the institution's integrated melanoma research activities. Jeffrey E. Lee, M.D., professor in the Department of Surgical Oncology and a surgeon specializing in melanoma, is the grant's co-director.

"Melanoma in its most advanced form is as deadly as brain, lung and pancreatic cancers, with 80 percent of patients dying within five years. To date, therapies approved to treat metastatic disease have all been biologic, also known as immunotherapies. Still, we are only seeing survival past five years in less than 10 percent of patients. These therapies are offering a hint, but it's not the answer," says Grimm, who has been studying melanoma and its reaction to immunotherapy for years.

"With the melanoma SPORE, we hope to make a difference in the lives of those patients with the disease and develop means to control the tumor so that it does not progress, allowing patients to live with their cancer," she continues. "We intend to look at new biologic agents and new ways of modulating the immune response, in part, but to also look at things we can alter that inhibit the immune response and inhibit response to chemotherapy, because melanoma is so resistant to chemotherapy."

According to the American Cancer Society, 55,100 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma this year; almost 8,000 are expected to die from the disease. Even more, says Grimm, melanoma has the fastest growing incidence rate of any cancer type in the country, with alarmingly poor survival rates when the cancer is caught in a later stage.

"We have come so far with basic science and technology advancements with melanoma research. The missing link to get these findings to the patient is this next step - preclinical and early research. There's a huge collection of ideas that need to be expedited. With the SPORE's translational emphasis, clinician-scientists and laboratory-scientists are able to truly partner together for the sake of getting these findings directly to the patient," says Grimm.

Project highlights of M. D. Anderson's melanoma SPORE include:

  • Developing a vaccine from a patient's own tumor in the laboratory and then returning it to the patient as treatment;
  • Predicting the likelihood of melanoma recurrence from the patient's DNA repair enzymes - information that will lead to better screening and prevention strategies;
  • Identifying the genes that regulate the body's immune response to melanoma in hopes of controlling and enhancing immune response;
  • Determining which patient's tumors will resist treatment by identifying the molecular markers and creating regulators to turn these markers off; and
  • Blocking melanoma tumor growth factors in patients by using specially designed blocking antibodies.

    In addition to the further development of key research projects, monies from the SPORE grant will fund M. D. Anderson's Melanoma Tissue Bank and provide biostatistics and administrative support.

    Since 1992, the NCI has awarded SPORE grants in certain cancer sites for concentrated research, focusing on projects with a translational emphasis. M. D. Anderson's nine SPORE grants in the past eight years total more than $99 million.

    One $4.5 million grant for lung cancer research was awarded jointly to M. D. Anderson and the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas in 1996; $6.5 million in renewed funding for that grant was received in 2003. A second, $10 million SPORE grant for ovarian cancer research was awarded in 1999. In 2001, M. D. Anderson received both prostate and bladder SPORE grants, totaling $13.3 million and $13.9 million respectively, and making it the first institution to hold two such genitourinary cancer grants. In 2002, the institution received a $12 million grant for head and neck cancer research - the first cancer center to receive a SPORE grant of this type. Last year, M. D. Anderson received three additional SPOREs - totaling $27.85 million - the first ever awarded for leukemia and endometrial cancers, and one for pancreatic cancer.

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