Cases of melanoma and deaths from this most lethal of skin cancers are on the rise, continuing an ominous trend that began more than 50 years ago.
MD Anderson’s diverse expertise is ideally suited to tackle this growing challenge, and to build upon the recent advances that have been made on multiple fronts. Moon shot scientists and physicians are applying their expertise in bench science, oncology, immunology, surgery, behavioral science, and prevention research to launch a broad campaign to reduce deaths from melanoma.
The team is pursuing an aggressive prevention effort to reduce UV light exposure in children and adolescents with a state-of-the-art comprehensive program that includes educational outreach and behavioral interventions to discourage tanning and cultivate sun protection practices.
Research shows that sun or artificial UV light exposure while young greatly increases a person’s risk of developing melanoma later in life. Successful prevention starts early.
This effort includes providing expertise to inform public policy decisions that affect melanoma risk.
For example, moon shot physicians and behavioral scientists provided detailed information about melanoma and the risks posed by UV light exposure during deliberation of a bill in the Texas Legislature to ban tanning bed use by those under age of 18. Texas became the fifth state in the country to enact such a ban, which became effective on Sept. 1, 2013.
Behavioral research seeks ways to effectively encourage parents to cultivate sun protection habits in their young children and to guide adolescents away from tanning.
Personalized and integrated management of melanoma
The majority of patients with melanoma present with cancer that is limited to a single site on the skin. Early detection of such tumors through regular skin cancer screening followed by surgery effectively treats most of these cases. If the melanoma spreads to other sites in the body, clinical outcomes are often quite poor. Melanoma is extremely resistant to many treatments traditionally used in other cancers.
However, recent scientific breakthroughs in our understanding of the forces that drive the aggressive nature of this disease have led to the development and approval of new targeted therapy and immunotherapy agents that effectively attack even highly advanced, late-stage melanoma.
New targeted therapies inhibit the BRAF gene, which is mutated in almost half of melanomas. Three different inhibitors of BRAF and its related pathway have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration since 2011 for the treatment of patients with metastatic melanoma. Multiple other promising targeted agents are undergoing testing.
In parallel, new insights into the way that the body’s own immune system may attack and control melanoma have led to new effective therapies, such as the FDA-approved ipilimumab, which can achieve durable cures in about 20 percent of patients. Other immunotherapy agents have shown promising results in early-phase clinical trials.
The Melanoma Moon Shot builds upon the momentum of these recent advances, working with many new resources the Moon Shots Program. For example, the team taps new expertise in genomics, led by the scientist who discovered BRAF mutations in melanoma, and in immunology, led by the scientist who developed ipilimumab.
Furthermore, the Melanoma Moon Shot works with researchers in multiple disciplines at MD Anderson and around the world to convert discoveries into improved treatment and survival across the full continuum of this disease.
Mindful and generous philanthropy is at the heart of innovative, highly collaborative new initiatives such as MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program. Support is urgently needed to help us eventually eradicate melanoma through excellent treatment and effective prevention.
The moon shot leaders have galvanized a large and integrated team that is moving forward in a milestone-driven manner to convert scientific knowledge into drugs, tests, devices and policies that can benefit patients as quickly as possible.
During a routine skin exam in 2008, a dermatologist spotted a scab on Cheri Huber’s shin. “I don't really remember when it first showed up,” Cheri told her dermatologist. “I just assumed I cut myself shaving and kept irritating it.” Two weeks later, she was diagnosed with melanoma. A tanning bed user for nearly 20 years, Cheri admits she had never heard of the word “melanoma.” She underwent surgery at MD Anderson after scans showed that the melanoma had spread and become stage 3. Cheri’s been cancer-free since September 2008, and she has since become an advocate for melanoma prevention.