Melanoma Research: Keeping Skin Cancer at Bay

CHM, New Department Chairs, 2014
Richard Neubig, MD, PhD, MSU Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, is focusing his skin cancer research on two promising avenues.

Typical of many kinds of cancer, melanoma becomes deadly when it spreads, and even when it responds well to treatment it often returns and becomes drug resistant.

That is why Richard Neubig, MD, PhD, a professor and chair of the Michigan State University Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, is focusing his research on two promising avenues: one to prevent the often fatal form of skin cancer from metastasizing, and a second to keep it from returning after it goes into remission.

While his research could lead to better treatments for melanoma, even more important is avoiding it in the first place, he said.

Anyone can reduce the risk of melanoma and other forms of skin cancer by applying sunscreen, wearing protective clothing and avoiding the mid-day sun and tanning lamps. It also is important to check the skin regularly for new growths or changes in moles.

IMG Fight melanoma shirtThe 4th annual MSU Gran Fondo bike ride scheduled for June 25 in Grand Rapids, is intended to raise awareness as well as money for skin cancer research. In its first three years, the MSU Gran Fondo raised more than $470,000 to support MSU College of Human Medicine’s skin cancer research program. 

“One of the most significant goals of the MSU Gran Fondo is raising awareness of the importance of early diagnosis,” since that is when it is most treatable, said Neubig, who plans to ride 25 miles in the event. “It also raises money for research and has helped us a lot with our work.”

Neubig hopes to publish a paper soon on his research into a compound that shows promise of keeping melanoma from spreading.

“Metastasis is a very complex process,” he said, that begins when cancerous cells migrate into a patient’s blood and eventually spread to other parts of the body. Neubig’s work is aimed at interrupting a signaling pathway in cancer cells and preventing their migration and, ultimately, metastasis.

“We’ve identified a pathway that’s very important in melanoma metastasis,” he said, “and we’ve figured out a way to turn off that pathway.”

Other research has identified a protein called RhoC that, when activated, is a key in the signaling pathway that causes melanoma, as well as other cancers, to spread. The compound Neubig has discovered helps prevent metastasis by interrupting that pathway and blocking the effects of RhoC.

014-090-178About 20 percent of melanoma patients have a mutation in what are known as the Ras genes, which makes their cancer much more difficult to treat. Trametinib is a drug commonly used to treat metastatic melanoma.
“In many cases, we may get a great response” with Trametinib, Neubig said, “but then the patient relapses. Can we find other compounds that make Trametinib work better?”

That’s why his second avenue of research is into combinations of drugs that, along with Trametinib, can help the patient avoid becoming drug resistant and, thus, prevent a relapse of melanoma.

“We’re very excited about the promise of this work,” Neubig said, although he cautioned that new discoveries in the fight against cancer usually take a long time to move into practical application.

100% of all donations to the MSU Gran Fondo support MSU College of Human Medicine’s skin cancer awareness, prevention and research. Click here to contribute.

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