Skin Cancer Foundation Continues to Further Research


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This year, the Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF) awarded a combined $125,000 to 3 scholars for their work in skin cancer research. The winners were announced at the Foundation’s annual Member Reception, which was held at the Ultimate Skybox at Diamond View Tower in San Diego, California, during the American Academy of Dermatology 2018 Annual Meeting (Figure 1).

“My fellow committee members and I had the difficult task of choosing these 3 winners from a field of 32 applications, which was nearly a 50% increase in applications over the previous year,” said David Polsky, MD, chair of the SCF’s Research Grants Committee and leader of the award presentation.

“It’s exciting to see more applications because that allows us to fund the most meaningful projects,” he said.

Grant Recipients

The grants, which support dermatology department research and clinical studies on skin cancer, were awarded to:

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Anna Nichols, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, received the Ashley Trenner Research Grant ($25,000) for her study “Potential Role for the Human Papillomavirus Vaccine to Prevent and Treat Squamous Cell Carcinoma (Figure 2).”

“Evidence suggests that the human papillomavirus (HPV) is involved in the pathogenesis of some skin cancers,” said Dr Nichols, especially in squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). “In this project we will test the novel hypothesis that intratumoral delivery of the 9-valent HPV vaccine is an effective treatment strategy for cutaneous SCCs on the trunk or extremities in patients who are poor surgical candidates or who defer surgery,” she said.

This study may identify a novel treatment of cutaneous SCCs and may reveal “new mechanisms and therapeutic targets that could have a broader impact” in dermatology and beyond, Dr Nichols noted.

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Emily Stamell Ruiz, MD, MPH, received the Dr Marcia Robbins-Wilf Research Award ($50,000) for her study “Validation of Dermatologist-Performed Ultrasound for Regional Lymph Node Surveillance for High-Stage Cutaneous Squamous Cell Carcinoma (Figure 3).” Dr Ruiz is the director of the High-Risk Skin Cancer Clinic at Dana-Farber Cancer Center, an associate physician at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

“The aim of our study is to evaluate the sensitivity of dermatologist-performed ultrasound for high-stage cutaneous squamous cell carcinomas,” Dr Ruiz said. While the use of radiologic imaging has been shown to positively impact cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma outcomes (cSCC), one of its limitations is that it is user dependent. “European dermatologists are trained in ultrasonography, which reduces variability in techniques and streamlines patient care by providing ultrasound screening during clinical examinations,” she said.

Dr Ruiz will attend a training program on ultrasonography in Germany prior to initiating her study to become certified to perform ultrasounds. Her study will include 80 participants with cSCC who will undergo an ultrasound and computed tomography scan at diagnosis and every 6 months for 2 years.

“If the results of this study support the use of dermatologist-performed ultrasound to monitor lymph nodes in patients with high-stage cSCC, then the same methodology can be applied to other cutaneous malignancies with the potential to metastasize to regional lymph nodes,” Dr Ruiz said. She noted that enabling dermatologists to conduct ultrasounds to do nodal staging would better streamline patient care and resource utilization. “Additionally, if ultrasound is adopted into patient care, it will eliminate the need for a second imaging appointment, reduce radiation exposure, and remove the variability of ultrasounds as the same dermatologist will be performing the study at each visit.”

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William Damsky, MD, PhD, an instructor at Yale Dermatology, received the Todd Nagel Memorial Award ($50,000) for his study “Elucidating and Overcoming Mechanisms of Immunotherapy Resistance in Melanoma (Figure 4).”

“In the past several years, significant strides have been made in melanoma therapy with new molecularly targeted and immune-based therapies entering the clinic,” Dr Damsky said. However, many melanoma patients treated with these therapies respond only partially, temporarily, or do not respond at all to treatment, he noted.

“I have chosen to focus on elucidating basic mechanisms that modulate response or resistance to available therapies for advanced melanoma,” Dr Damsky said. For his study, he and his team developed novel cancer models “where the interactions between the immune system and melanoma cells can be studied in the laboratory in a way that is highly relevant to human melanoma.” They have created versions of their models that include melanoma cells that are resistant to anti-PD-1/PD-L1 and anti-CTLA-4 therapies, the most commonly used immunotherapies for treating melanoma.

Using these models, we will perform a genetic screen using CRISPR/Cas9 technology that will allow us to test which, out of all genes in the genome, are the most important for either enhancing or blocking effective anti-tumor immune responses, including in the immunotherapy resistant cancers,” Dr Damsky explained. “Ultimately, I am hopeful this work will help us to develop new strategies to treat this potentially devastating disease and improve outcomes for patients.”