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The Society for Melanoma Research Newsletter Published By: The Society for Melanoma Research

Volume 34 | July 2020

Edited by: Claire Hardie and Rohit Thakur

Letter from the SMR President

SMR President Georgina V Long

Concerned but Optimistic

What a year so far - 2020 will be noted in history. In Australia, it has been truly biblical with fires in January, floods in February, and pestilence with the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of COVID-19 has been immense. This virus has highlighted that when we work together, we can overcome huge obstacles, but it has also exposed disparities.

No doubt, all of you have been affected by COVID-19 in some way. One of my great concerns is the impact on our up-and-coming researchers, where networking and face to face interactions can make a real difference to productive collaborations and opportunities for transformative work. This is why our Society for Melanoma Research (SMR), and others like us, are so important. What is of particular importance is that we (SMR) are compact and nimble, and therefore can provide specific and fruitful opportunities to grow in this new virtual world.

In October 2020, we will be holding a half-day virtual meeting with highlights from the melanoma research world (www.smrcongress.org). Most importantly, we have added a virtual poster session for our junior researchers and students only. This is an essential focus on our up-and-coming researchers, to support and provide opportunities to share their work and move their research forward with the help of all of us. Please take the time to review the posters and reach out to our researchers.

I tried to identify studies on the phenomenon of ‘virtual fatigue’; it was well represented by anecdotes, laments and calls-to-action in commentaries and editorials, but as yet, I could not find a scientific study that constructed a definition or validated method to measure it in the short- or long-term. We suspect that we may be living in a virtual world for a while yet, and this may even be our future. So, if you have come across successful methods to combat or rejoice in this virtual world, please do share, as SMR will adapt, grow and support melanoma research, regardless of the hurdles.

Another of my great concerns is the impact of COVID-19 on laboratory research. I identified a study outlining the issues of the impact in transplantation research specifically, but I was unable to identify a study measuring the impact on productivity; no doubt these will come, and many of you may already be part of such studies. This is also critical, as it is through identification and measurement that we can find solutions.

Despite my concerns, like many of my colleagues, I remain optimistic, and I am grateful to be the President of such an active and successful SMR. Scientific research saves lives and improves the world; it is our ticket for the future, and the only way we can navigate this incredible planet, even with COVID-19. On behalf of the executive committee we hope you, your loved ones, friends and colleagues all stay well and continue to work to “alleviate the suffering of people” through research.

NOMINATIONS SOUGHT FOR SMR ANNUAL ELECTIONS

The Society for Melanoma Research will have elections in September 2020 for two open seats on the Executive Committee as well as several on the Society Steering Committee.

On the Executive Committee both the position of Secretary and Vice President/President Elect are open for election in September.

The position of Secretary is a two-year term. This individual serves on both the SMR Executive Committee and as a member of the SMR Steering Committee.

The position of Vice President/ President Elect is a bit more complicated. This individual serves one year as Vice President and the second year as President Elect. At the end of the second year the President Elect assumes the position of Society President for a two-year term. After their two-year term as President they fulfil the position of Immediate Past President for an additional two years.

SMR will also have elections for several open seats on the Society Steering Committee. These individuals can serve up to two consecutive three-year terms.

A brief description of the Steering Committee includes:

  • Attend and participate in steering committee meetings on a regular basis
  • Diligently read, review, and inquire about material that affects the Society
  • Keep abreast of the affairs and finances of the society
  • Use independent judgment when analyzing matters that affect the corporation
  • Vote on business matters of the Society as deemed necessary
  • Promote membership, congress participation, and other initiatives hosted by SMR
  • Avoid any potential conflicts of interest and identify them to the President if you are concerned
  • Represent SMR to the global melanoma community to the best of your ability

Additional participation may include:

  • Guide/lead the society membership by joining sub-committees on topics like membership recruitment
  • Author articles for the quarterly SMR newsletter
  • Initiate new ideas and action steps that further the mission of SMR

If you are interested in being considered for any of these positions, have questions about serving or have someone to recommend for consideration of the nominating committee please email our Association Manager, Debra Marshall debra@sswmeetings.com no later than September 1, 2020.

IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH: SMR members’ experience

Written by - Antonia Pritchard, Ph.D.

On the 28th December 2019, the senior post-doctoral researcher in my group, and my friend, Dr Sharon Hutchison died at 39 years old from a cutaneous melanoma diagnosed only 11 months previously. The end of 2019 and start of 2020 was, frankly, a terrible blur to myself and our colleagues. In the midst of this, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and global shutdown came, with our University closing its doors in March. I expect our practical experience has been similar to many other research groups who have experienced shutdown, worldwide. For each team member, this created different additional personal pressures and it has been important to ensure everyone felt supported to handle the situation in a way best for them. There have been surprising positives to the sudden change in work patterns, including finishing neglected manuscripts, students completing thesis chapters, and the proliferation of online conferences/seminars/coffee breaks with local and international research groups. I am most concerned about funding: in the short term, a lack of commitment for funded extensions for final year post-graduate students and in the longer term, the loss of income or diversion of funds for all agencies. An unexpected consequence of lockdown has been the space to process our loss of Sharon as a team and I am immensely proud of the honesty, openness and resilience shown by everyone during this extraordinary and complex time.

Antonia Pritchard, Ph.D., is a senior lecturer at Division of Biomedical Science, University of the Highlands and Islands, Inverness, Scotland. The link to her research laboratory website can be found at: https://pure.uhi.ac.uk/en/persons/antonia-pritchard

Written by - C. Daniela Robles-Espinoza, Ph.D.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an important impact on our research, yet I think it has been limited due to our primary focus on bioinformatics. We are trying to identify genetic risk factors, genomic drivers and potential therapeutic targets of acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM) by studying the tumors of a large cohort of Latin American patients. As we are generating our own data, the pandemic has meant that we have had to stop patient recruitment for four months now, and it is uncertain when we will be able to resume it. Similarly, we had just obtained ethical approval to begin a collection of PDX models from Mexican ALM patients at our University, which has had to be delayed. We have also had to cancel onsite courses and conferences, research travel, and request no-cost extensions for our grants. The Ph.D. viva of one of my students has been delayed, and the stipends of some Ph.D. students (usually funded by the government) may be at risk. Paperwork has accumulated, with PIs having to submit detailed return plans and office seating to the university, as well as teaching plans for an online-only semester in August. All of this, combined with the challenges of working from home, has meant that time for research has been severely limited. On the bright side, we managed to generate at least some data for each of the students and postdocs, and we have been able to continue our virtual lab seminars and one-on-one meetings, which has allowed our projects to continue, if at a slower pace.

C. Daniela Robles-Espinoza, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the International Laboratory of Human Genome Research, National Autonomous University of Mexico, Queretaro, Mexico. The link to her research laboratory website can be found at: www.liigh.unam.mx/drobles

MINORITIES IN SCIENCE

Written by - Gretchen M Alicea, Ph.D. & Vito W Rebecca, Ph.D.

Recent events in the United States of America following the death of George Floyd have catalyzed movements world-wide, reminding us yet again of the inequalities, hurt, oppression and systemic racism that Black and other minority communities have endured for centuries in all areas of society.

The President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Derrick Johnson, defines systemic racism as systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantages African Americans and minorities.

Much needed discussions against systemic racism have led to pledges on social media by individuals and universities within our melanoma community committing to inclusion, diversity, anti-racism, and equity efforts. While these pledges are admirable, it is critical we ensure they are followed through with meaningful actions that protect and foster increased recruitment of underrepresented minorities into our melanoma community and the cancer field at large. In 2017, only 8.9% of science and engineering doctorate holders employed as full-time, full professors at all institutions were from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups (https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/digest/occupation#academic-careers). Underrepresentation also occurs among physicians and physician-scientists, with the Association of American Medical Colleges reporting that underrepresented racial and ethnic groups make up less than 10% of the US physician workforce.

Here we have compiled a preliminary list of actions and opportunities for our melanoma community to continue creating a lasting culture of inclusion at all levels of our field.

  • Action: Move from being a perpetrator or bystander to racist comments to an upstander against it. All too frequent comments that underrepresented minority trainees and scientists in our melanoma community (and the scientific field at large) hear are “you only received this grant because you are a minority”, “you should apply for this since you are a minority and it is easier”, and/or “the only reason you got that position is because you are a person of color, etc.” These words are unequivocally false, they communicate to the underrepresented trainee/scientist that they are viewed as inferior scientifically/intellectually, and they portray a sense that underrepresented trainees/scientists are not welcome since they are not viewed as equals. If you observe others making these comments in the presence OR absence of underrepresented trainees/scientists, speak up and do not tolerate these actions as status quo. Here is an excellent videocast from the NIH concerning this very topic: https://videocast.nih.gov/watch=37765.
  • Action: Encourage and support underrepresented minorities to apply for career development grants. Due to systemic racism built into the fabric of society, it is often a more difficult path for an underrepresented minority to arrive at a graduate or postdoctoral level position relative to their colleagues. Once here, provide additional support to help foster and retain this diverse talent pool.
  • Action: Give underrepresented minority scientists opportunities to write review manuscripts to provide a platform for their valuable and underheard voices and opinions.
  • Action: Recommend underrepresented minorities for Editor and Reviewer roles in journals to help shape the present and future of the field.
  • Opportunity: The NIH Center for Cancer Training (CCT) Intramural Diversity Workforce Branch (IDWB) has developed opportunities to enhance recruitment and retention and generate diversity awareness: https://www.cancer.gov/grants-training/training/idwb.
  • Opportunity: The Minorities in Cancer Research (MICR) Council is a membership within the AACR that provides travel awards every year for minority trainees as well as minority and minority-serving institution faculty scholars to attend the AACR meeting: https://www.aacr.org/professionals/membership/constituency-groups/minorities-in-cancer-research/micr-awards-and-funding/.
  • Opportunity: The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has developed a Diversity in Oncology Initiative with award opportunities for medical students and residents who are underrepresented in oncology: https://www.asco.org/practice-policy/cancer-care-initiatives/diversity-oncology-initiative.

The melanoma field has already become the poster child for targeted- and immune-therapy breakthroughs. It would be an equivalent achievement if our field could also spearhead fostering a community of underrepresented scientists and leaders.

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NEWS

ASCO 2020 Highlights in Melanoma

Written by -Jarem J.A Edwards

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) conference is an annual meeting for clinicians and researchers to discuss the latest developments in patient treatment across many cancers. This year was no exception, despite the challenges of having to host this meeting virtually. In melanoma, a number of key abstracts were presented that demonstrated progress in the treatment of patients with melanoma.

In the neoadjuvant setting (systemic treatment before surgery), Dr. Christian Blank and colleagues presented results from the phase II PRADO trial, where 99 patients with palpable and physically measurable stage III disease were given 2 cycles of combination immunotherapy (ipilimumab and pembrolizumab) before resection of only the single largest nodal deposit of melanoma. Approximately 50% of patients achieved a complete pathological response to therapy and avoided a therapeutic lymph node dissection (TLND) based on the fact that the pathology of the resected node fully represented the treatment response in all other diseased nodes. Importantly, these patients exhibited complete recurrence-free survival for the duration of follow-up (86% of patients with > 12 weeks) and reported higher quality of life compared to patients that did not achieve a complete pathological response and which received standard TLND. The PRADO study points to the many potential advantages for treating stage III melanoma patients with immunotherapy in the neoadjuvant setting. These include 1) the strong clinical efficacy of systemic treatment before surgery, 2) the ability to evaluate treatment response from pathology (as opposed to adjuvant therapy) and 3) the potential to avoid moderately morbid TLND surgery in a subset of patients exhibiting a strong response to neoadjuvant immunotherapy.

In context of progression on anti-PD-1 checkpoint inhibitors, two notable abstracts were presented. The first, by Dr. Ines Silva, investigated a retrospective cohort of 355 patients with stage III or IV disease who had progressed on anti-PD-1 therapy, and then went on to receive single agent ipilimumab (46%) or combination anti-PD-1 + anti-CTLA-4 (54%). Patients who received combination therapy demonstrated higher response rates (32%) as well as progression-free survival (22%) and overall survival (53%) compared to patients receiving ipilimumab alone (13%; 18%; 25%, respectively), indicating clinical efficacy of anti-PD-1 with the addition of anti-CTLA-4 in the context of single agent anti-PD-1 resistance. Interestingly, there was no significant increased toxicity (high grade) with the combination treatment compared to ipilimumab alone. The study highlights the potential role of anti-PD-1 checkpoint inhibition even in patients resistant to anti-PD-1. The second abstract of interest, presented by Dr. Amod Sarnaik, discussed the long-term follow-up of lifileucel (LN-144) autologous TIL therapy in 66 melanoma patients who had progressed on prior standard systemic treatments (anti-PD1 100%; anti-CTLA-4 80%; BRAF/MEK inhibitor 25%). An overall response rate of 36.4% was achieved in this group of patients (3% CR, 33.3% PR, 43.9% SD), with the median duration of response not reached with a median follow-up time of 18.7 months. The study suggests the potential efficacy of TIL therapy in patients resistant to standard immunotherapy and targeted systemic therapies.

Lastly, in rare melanoma subtypes, Dr. Xinan Sheng and colleagues presented data from a clinical trial exploring the efficacy of combination anti-PD-1 and an anti-VEGF receptor inhibitor in 33 mucosal melanoma patients. Metastatic mucosal melanoma patients are known to respond poorly to anti-PD-1 immunotherapy and alternative efficacious therapies are lacking. Of the 33 patients enrolled, 14 (48.3%) achieved an objective response by RECIST 1.1, with a median progression-free survival time of 7.5 months. Longer follow-up time is required, but the study suggests VEGF targeting agents in combination with immunotherapy may be efficacious in melanomas typically refractory to standard immunotherapy. Finally, Dr. Isabella Glitza presented results from a phase 1 trial exploring the tolerability of direct intrathecal administration of an anti-PD-1 inhibitor (nivolumab) in metastatic melanoma patients with leptomeningeal disease. Typically, these patients have the worst prognosis with a median overall survival time of < 3 months. Results from the trial indicate that intrathecal administration of anti-PD-1 was well tolerated and likely to be efficacious in this subset of patients.

Jarem J.A Edwards is a Ph.D. student in the laboratory of Professor Richard Scolyer and Professor Georgina Long at the Melanoma Institute of Australia (MIA).

SMR MEMBER NEWS

Please remember to share important milestones with your colleagues.

Congratulations to C. Daniela Robles-Espinoza, Ph.D. on taking the role of social media editor of Pigment Cell and Melanoma Research (PCMR). PCMR is the official journal of SMR. The twitter account for PCMR is @PCMR_Wiley.

Congratulations to Antoni Ribas, M.D. Ph.D., on starting his new role as the President of the American Association for Cancer Research organization for 2020–2021. AACR is the first and largest cancer research organization dedicated to accelerating the conquest of cancer. Through its programs and services, the AACR fosters research in cancer and related biomedical science; accelerates the dissemination of new research findings among scientists and others dedicated to the conquest of cancer; promotes science education and training; and advances the understanding of cancer etiology, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment throughout the world.

Congratulations to Ira Mellman, Ph.D. on being elected to the AACR board of directors.

SMR President and Melanoma Institute Australia Co-Medical Director, Dr. Georgina Long, has been recognized in the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Professor Long has been appointed as an Officer (AO) of the Order of Australia (General Division) for distinguished service to medicine, particularly, to melanoma clinical and translational research, and to professional medical societies.

Melanoma Institute Australia Co-Medical Director, Dr. Richard Scolyer was presented with the Sydney University 2020 Alumni Award for International Achievement for global leadership in melanoma research, clinical care, oncology & pathology.

Congratulations to Jean Christophe (Chris) Marine, Ph.D. has been elected as an EMBO member. EMBO promotes excellence in the life sciences in Europe and beyond. The major goals of the organization are to support talented researchers at all stages of their careers, stimulate the exchange of scientific information, and help build a research environment where scientists can achieve their best work.

Congratulations to Vito Rebecca, Ph.D. for receiving the 2020 K01 Career Development Award. He has also accepted an Assistant Professor position at Johns Hopkins University in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, congratulations on his appointment to this position.

Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF) is committed to funding the future of melanoma research by supporting the most promising studies being conducted by medical students early in their careers. Since 2011 and including the recipients below, the MRF has awarded 69 grants to medical students totalling over $200,000! In 2020, the MRF is proud to announce the award of 12 medical student research awards. Please join us in congratulating:

Congratulations to Diwakar Davar, M.D. (Mentor: Hassane Zarour, M.D.), recipient of the 2020 Melanoma Research Foundation Breakthrough Consortium – Bristol-Myers Squibb (MRFBC-BMS) Young Investigator Research Team Award to Advance the Field of Translational Immuno-Oncology. Dr. Davar is an assistant professor of medicine and medical oncologist/hematologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. With Co-PIs Meghan Mooradian, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School (Mentor: Ryan Sullivan, MD) and Julie Stein, MD, Johns Hopkins University (Mentor: Janis Taube, MD), their proposal entitled “Integrative Analysis of Prognostic Factors to Neoadjuvant Nivolumab/CMP-001 in Stage III B/C/D Melanoma” seeks to improve the use of neoadjuvant immunotherapy agents to prevent melanoma recurrence in high-risk melanoma patients while avoiding adverse effects of treatment.

Congratulations to Andrew E. Aplin, Ph.D., who has been awarded the 2020 Melanoma Research Foundation Humanitarian Award. Aplin is a professor in cancer research, enterprise associate director for basic research, and program leader for cancer cell biology and signalling at Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center Jefferson Health. This award recognizes a leader in the melanoma community who is dedicated to exemplary patient care, scientific leadership or cutting-edge research. Aplin’s research focuses on improving the understanding of the mechanisms that cause aberrant cell growth and invasion in subsets of melanoma, as well identifying novel therapeutic targets.

2020 VIRTUAL SMR CONGRESS

The Society is excited to announce that Aviv Regev has been confirmed as our Keynote Speaker for the 2020 Virtual SMR Congress. The Congress will be taking place on the 28th October 2020 from 2:00pm EST – 6:00pm EST. The SMR Congress registration fee of $99 includes access to all virtual sessions and recorded sessions, a free SMR membership for 2021, the ability to earn CME credits and exclusive access to the soon to be released SMR Community Mobile App.

VIRTUAL POSTERS

As an essential focus on our up-and-coming researchers and to support and provide opportunities to share their work the Congress steering committee has added a virtual poster session for our junior researchers and students only. Please take the time to review the posters and reach out to our researchers to move their research forward with the help of all of us. Please note that abstracts will not be reviewed or scored.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE ABSTRACT AND POSTER GUIDELINES

SMR ANNUAL AWARDS

Each year the Society for Melanoma Research recognizes the outstanding accomplishments of our members by celebrating with several annual achievement awards given at the SMR International Congress. This year with the change in plans for the Congress due to concerns surrounding COVID-19, the Society will be focusing on the following two awards:

  • Estela Medrano Memorial Award
  • Young Investigator Award

Each of these winners will be invited to participate in the SMR virtual event planned for Fall of 2020. In addition, they will be honoured alongside the 2021 award winners at the Awards Ceremony to be held in New Orleans in 2021.

To review all past recipients please visit the Society for Research website. https://www.societymelanomaresearch.org/awards.

This year's nominations are now closed. To be sure that all worthy individuals are given consideration for all of the SMR annual awards we encourage all members to submit nominations of your colleagues and peers throughout the year. Individuals with multiple nominations are much more likely to be recognized.

JOB ADVERTISEMENTS

The Wistar Institute, Philadelphia, has an opening for a highly motivated post-doctoral fellow to join the laboratory of Dr Jessie Villanueva at the Wistar Institute. The Villanueva lab studies the molecular pathways that become deregulated in melanoma with the goal of identifying suitable targets and novel therapies, particularly for tumours with limited therapeutic options. Candidates should have recently received a Ph.D. (or equivalent) degree or be close to obtaining their doctoral degree with experience in cancer biology. Experience in melanoma, telomerase biology and in vitro 3D models is preferred. Interested applicants should submit a cover letter, curriculum vitae, and a list of three references to Dr Jessie Villanueva via e-mail at jvillanueva@Wistar.org. For more information about the Wistar Institute visit our website at www.wistar.org

The Melanoma Center at Huntsman Cancer Institute is actively recruiting a tumor immunologist with an interest in melanoma who will integrate with the highly collaborative faculty within the program. Inquiries may be sent to Doug Grossman, MD/Ph.D. (doug.grossman@hci.utah.edu) or Sheri Holmen, Ph.D. (sheri.holmen@hci.utah.edu).

NEW SMR MOBILE APP

We are really excited to announce that we are beginning to build a new mobile app that will be available exclusively to SMR members. It will be available for members to utilized year-round. The goal for this app will be to provide SMR members with the latest information about melanoma, discussion groups, events, award nominations, job posting and more.

MELANOMA MEETINGS AROUND THE WORLD

Melanoma and Other Skin Cancers: Biology and Pain Management 2020. In this interdisciplinary conference, an expert, international faculty will present clinical updates in melanoma biology, staging and early disease management. This activity was planned by and for the healthcare team, and attendees will receive 6.25 Interprofessional Continuing Education (IPCE) credits for learning and change. Registration is now open and your members can sign up and learn more by visiting: ce.medstarhealth.org/melanoma

STAY CONNECTED

As we work together to remain connected as a community please remember to use this newsletter as a means of sharing important information with your colleagues. If you have information that you would like to share with our members, please email info@societyformelanomaresearch.org. As we roll out our new community mobile app we will also have the ability to rapidly share breaking news in the melanoma field.

Stay safe! We hope you will join us for the virtual event that we are planning for the October 28, 2020. We will provide additional information as it becomes available on the SMR congress website (https://smrcongress.org/) and in the next edition of the SMR newsletter.