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Wistar, Penn Win $12.1M in NCI Funds for Melanoma Studies

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – The Wistar Institute has received a $12.1 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to fund collaborative research projects with University of Pennsylvania scientists focused on developing targeted skin cancer therapies, Wistar said on Tuesday.

The Special Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant will fund four studies examining biomarkers and personalized treatments and three research cores that will support the projects. NCI awards SPORE grants with the aim of translating basic lab discoveries into new cancer therapeutics and diagnostics, in this case for the deadliest of skin cancers, melanoma.

In one project, investigators from Penn and the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute will search for genetic markers to predict which patients will respond poorly to ipilimumab, marketed as Yervoy by Bristol-Myers Squibb. The drug has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration and targets the CTLA4 protein, which slows down immune responses to cancer. Although the drug was created to re-activate a patient's immune system, some people suffer adverse reactions that can cause death. The Penn-Moffitt team will study 1,000 patients from recent clinical trials to find genetic markers that can identify which patients could use the drug safely and effectively.

Another team will examine the effects of combining vemurafenib, a BRAF inhibitor marketed by Genentech as Zelboraf, with a drug targeting the protein PI3K to try to "overwhelm" a melanoma tumor's capability to develop resistance to treatment. Other studies will seek to modify T cells to target melanoma cells and test out a method of inhibiting autophagy in cancer cells.

The SPORE grant will fund three core resources, including a biospecimen and pathology core to provide melanoma tumor samples; a biostatistics core to analyze and disseminate research results; and an administrative core to support the collaborations between Wistar and Penn scientists.

Wistar's SPORE program also is expected to provide the organizational structure for all the campus' activities in melanoma and other skin cancers, Wistar said. Both Wistar and Penn will be able to use the SPORE funding to support additional projects and investigators, and both will provide financial support for these projects.