Melanoma is a type of cancer that forms in cells called melanocytes. It usually forms in skin, but can also form in other tissues such as the eyes or intestines. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or tanning beds can raise the risk of melanoma of the skin. Members of the Melanoma disease-oriented team (MDOT) do research to improve understanding and management of skin cancers. The MDOT has these broad goals:
- Improve melanoma treatment
- Develop immune system therapies to treat it
- Create targeted therapies against proteins involved in the disease’s spread to other areas
- Identify new genes involved in melanoma susceptibility
- Develop strategies to prevent the disease
- Develop animal models of melanoma
A Sample of Current Projects
- Mimicking human tumors in mice. Recent scientific advances, including groundbreaking work by HCI researchers, make it possible to create “personal” mouse models of cancer, called xenografts, from an individual’s cancer cells. To make a xenograft, researchers implant tumor tissue from patients into mice. The grafted tumors grow, looking and behaving like the original human tumors. They even spread to the same places in the bodies of mice as in patients. Researchers have created mouse models for different types of melanoma and use these to pursue new and improved cancer treatments. Xenografts are also important in basic research to understand the mechanisms and genetic basis of cancer development.
- Repurposing an anti-HIV drug to treat melanoma. Patients who take Nelfinavir, a drug used to treat HIV infection, have a lower incidence of cancers. Recent laboratory studies using this drug to treat several other cancer types show it works directly against them. In the laboratory, Nelfinavir also appears to make tumors more sensitive to radiation treatment. In the next step towards using Nelfinavir as a treatment for melanoma, researchers are testing whether it works against tumors in melanoma mouse models.
- Identifying new melanoma susceptibility genes. About 10 percent of melanomas are thought to be due to inherited genetic risk. Using the Utah Population Database, a unique health data and genealogy resource, families have been identified in Utah who carry mutations that result in a high risk of developing melanoma. Researchers are analyzing the DNA of these family members to identify specific genes that contribute to the high rate of melanoma in these families. Further studies to understand the normal role of these genes may point to ways to counter the effects of these mutations.