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A woman in a lab coat holding up a microscope slide.

Melanoma Therapies - Why Research Is So Important

As a melanoma survivor, I am always encouraged when I read about the latest advancements in treating this deadly form of skin cancer. I don’t recall hearing much about “targeted immunotherapies” when I was first diagnosed back in 1988. I was fortunate not to need treatment beyond a very involved excision. We have come a long way over the past 30 or so years.

UCLA leading the way in melanoma research

I am also very encouraged when I see my alma mater, UCLA, at the forefront of such research. I was a recent college graduate when I was first diagnosed, as I had spent many a sunny, college afternoon blowing off class and tanning. So, in a way, having my school taking the lead in discovering new healing therapies is actually therapeutic for me.

A grant for new immunotherapy discoveries

UCLA researchers recently received a $13 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to find novel ways to overcome melanoma resistance to some of the most effective target immunotherapies. These therapies have significantly improved treatment outcomes for many melanoma patients, but not all people are helped. Tumors often become resistant to these drugs. The UCLA research is intended to find ways to block this resistance for better outcomes for more people.1

Melanoma resistance

According to Dr. Antoni Ribas from UCLA, one of the principal researchers of the NIH grant, only about half of all patients receiving targeted immunotherapies are effectively treated. Dissatisfaction with these outcomes led to the grant request and are at the core of the work. The researchers are trying to identify mechanisms that enable melanoma tumors to become resistant and understand which patients are more likely to have this resistance.1

Building on earlier findings

The five-year grant will enable the researchers to study the biology of these therapies and fund critically-needed clinical trials. They plan on building on earlier findings and advancing them to pre-clinical models and trials and then advance treatments based on their research. The UCLA research team will involve three researchers (Dr. Ribas, Dr. Roger Lo, and Dr. Thomas Graeber) who have collaborated for over a decade.1

Tricky changing melanoma cells

One focus of the research will study why some melanoma cells are able to change to an earlier state when targeted with immunotherapies. This change, called de-differentiation allows cells to become less dependent on pathways that immunotherapy drugs are blocking. In other words, some cells are able to change in such a way to avoid treatment roadblocks by taking an escape route.1

Universities giving hope in the melanoma fight

Dr. Graeber is investigating novel therapies (in conjunction with other already effective drugs) that can identify and destroy these types of melanoma cells.1 This brings me to the point of this article. Super smart people are working on our behalf. I have no idea if any of these three researchers are melanoma patients. I want to go back to Westwood, California, and shake their hands (in a socially-distanced way).

Check out more information about all the great things that are happening at UCLA. I know this seems like a shameless plug for my school, but I am so proud to be a Bruin today.

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