Skin Cancer

Current Projects
Matthew Bakalar, PhD

Dr. Bakalar is developing new methods to discover the millions of interactions between T-cell receptors and foreign antigens that trigger an immune response. In many cancers, such as metastatic melanoma, immunotherapy depends on the ability of T cells to recognize and respond to tumor-specific neoantigens—new proteins found on cancer cells, which let the immune system know that these are not normal cells. Collecting the data on this relationship can help create computational models to predict the antigen-target of a patient’s individual T cell receptor, which could then guide the design of patient-specific cancer vaccines and engineering of new, tumor-targeting T cells.

Project title: Predicting the interactions of T cell receptors with peptide-MHC complexes
Institution: The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Nir Hacohen, PhD
Cancer Type: Skin, All Cancers
Research Area: Basic Immunology
Michael E. Birnbaum, PhD

Immunotherapies that rely on reinvigorating T cells to patrol the body, detect cancerous cells and eliminate them have shown the potential for long-lasting cures. Despite their initial success, immunotherapies have been effective only for some cancers and for some patients. To improve outcomes, Dr. Birnbaum has developed a new method to match T cells with their antigen targets on cancer cells by engineering viruses to use T cell recognition as a means of cell entry. This technology will be applicable to a wide range of cancers, including ones for which immunotherapy is not currently effective.

Project title: "Decoding and reprogramming tumor-infiltrating T cells by pMHC-targeted lentiviruses"
Institution: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Award Program: Innovator
Cancer Type: Skin, All Cancers
Research Area: Immunotherapy
Brian C. Capell, MD, PhD

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) can occur on a number of epithelial surface tissues ranging from the skin and lung to the esophagus and oropharynx, and collectively, are the most common form of cancer in the world. Recent sequencing studies have found that mutations in epigenetic regulators that control gene expression frequently occur in all forms of SCC. Dr. Capell aims to harness the great accessibility of human skin to understand how altered epigenetics promotes cutaneous SCC. Given that epigenetic changes are inherently reversible and numerous epigenetic drugs are currently in development, he hopes that by understanding these mechanisms he will identify better therapies for these incredibly common and potentially deadly cancers.

Project title: "Defining the role of epigenetic enhancer dysfunction in epithelial carcinogenesis"
Institution: University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Award Program: Clinical Investigator
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Shelley L. Berger, PhD
Cancer Type: Other Cancer, Skin
Research Area: Epigenetics
Aleksey Chudnovskiy, PhD

Dr. Chudnovskiy studies “antigen presentation,” an immune process by which dendritic cells capture antigens at the tumor site, migrate to the tumor-draining lymph nodes, and present tumor antigens to the effector CD4 and CD8 T cells that are responsible for anti-tumor responses. This is the first crucial step in successful cancer immunotherapy.

Project title: "Defining dendritic cell-T cell interaction history within the tumor microenvironment using enzymatic labeling"
Institution: The Rockefeller University
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Gabriel D. Victora, PhD
Cancer Type: Lung, Skin
Research Area: Basic Immunology
Nicholas C. DeVito, MD

Immunotherapy has resulted in positive outcomes for patients with melanoma, lung cancer, and other malignancies; however, most patients do not have meaningful responses to this treatment strategy. Tumors that fail to respond to immunotherapy have effectively hidden themselves from detection by the host immune system. Understanding how cancers create an immune-excluded environment promises to lead to the development of more highly effective immunotherapies. Dendritic cells (DCs) play a central role in orchestrating the immune response to cancers by enabling T cells to “see” and destroy cancerous cells. Previous work has shown that melanomas secrete a protein called Wnt5a that potently suppresses DC function and ultimately contributes to the development of immunotherapy resistance. Dr. DeVito will examine certain tumor signaling pathways that have been implicated in driving Wnt5a production and facilitating cancer spreading by suppressing DC function within nearby draining lymph node tissues, which are critical for generating immune responses capable of destroying developing cancers. These studies will further investigate the ability of Wnt5a inhibition to sensitize cancers that are typically resistant to immunotherapy strategies. In addition, he is conducting a clinical trial to determine if the activation of these pathways correlates with immunotherapy failure in melanoma patients. He anticipates that better characterization of pathways that cancers utilize to suppress DC function to thus shut down the immune response will lead to the discovery of novel, more effective immunotherapy strategies, and may identify biomarkers that will improve selection of tailored immunotherapies for specific cancer patients.

Project title: "Investigating the role of EMT-mediated dendritic cell tolerization in checkpoint inhibitor resistance"
Institution: Duke University
Award Program: Physician-Scientist
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Brent A. Hanks, MD, PhD
Cancer Type: Lung, Skin
Research Area: Tumor Immunology
Gabriel Muhire Gihana, PhD

Dr. Gihana investigates the role of cellular morphology in mediating the oncogenic signaling of the gene RAS in pancreatic cancer. RAS is altered in more than 30% of human cancers, making it one of the genes most affected by cancer-causing alterations. Oncogenic RAS induces pronounced changes in cell morphology. Dr. Gihana aims to understand how the changes in cell morphology contribute to the potential of RAS to cause cancer. Because direct inhibition of oncogenic RAS has been difficult to achieve, these studies of other cellular parameters that mediate RAS impact on cancer is likely to contribute to novel and effective therapies.

Project title: Cell morphological modulation of oncogenic Ras signaling
Institution: University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
Named Award: The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research Fellow
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Gaudenz Danuser, PhD
Cancer Type: Skin
Research Area: Carcinogenesis
Anita Gola, PhD

Dr. Gola is investigating how tissue regenerates the right cell type, at the right place. Effective cell-cell communication and cell-spatial organization are critical to maintaining organ function and homeostasis. Dr. Gola will use skin as a model tissue to understand how immune cells are organized and how they communicate with resident stem cells while maintaining tolerance and providing protection. When these interactions are disrupted, they can lead to cancers and other hyper-proliferative disorders. Unraveling the mechanisms that govern healthy immune-stem cell crosstalk and what goes wrong in disease may lead to new therapeutics for skin cancers.

Project title: "A spatially patterned stem cell and immune cell barrier at the skin surface"
Institution: The Rockefeller University
Named Award: National Mah Jongg League Fellow
Award Program: Fellow
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Elaine V. Fuchs, PhD
Cancer Type: Skin
Research Area: Stem Cell Biology
Gabriel K. Griffin, MD

Immunotherapy drugs, which spur the body's own immune system to attack tumors, hold great promise but still fail in many patients. Dr. Griffin aims to identify therapeutic targets that can enhance the efficacy and scope of immunotherapy in melanoma and other cancer types. His unique approach focuses on retrotransposons, repetitive sequences of DNA that are evolutionary remnants of viruses and comprise upwards of 50% of the human genome. These genetic elements are usually silenced via DNA methylation but can activate an immune response at certain times. Dr. Griffin’s research will characterize the epigenetic pathways that silence these repetitive elements in cancer cells, thus helping tumors evade surveillance by the immune system. This basic understanding may guide the development of epigenetic therapies capable of triggering anti-tumor immunity.

Project title: "Enhancing cancer immunotherapy through epigenetic modulation of the repetitive genome"
Institution: Brigham and Women's Hospital
Award Program: Physician-Scientist
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Bradley E. Bernstein, MD, PhD, and Arlene H. Sharpe, MD, PhD
Cancer Type: Skin
Research Area: Epigenetics
Andrew L. Ji, MD

Squamous cell skin cancer or cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma (cSCC) is the second most common cancer in the United States. In cases when the tumor cannot be surgically removed, treatment options are limited. Dr. Ji is focusing on intratumoral heterogeneity, the diversity of cell types and tumor cell subpopulations that characterize these tumors. Current cSCC treatments do not effectively target all subpopulations within a tumor, which leads to survival of some cancer cells and therapeutic resistance. He aims to understand how intratumoral heterogeneity arises within cSCC tumors, focusing on how cell-cell communication within the tumor microenvironment influences this process. This research may guide the development of improved treatment strategies.

Project title: "Cancer cell-extrinsic and intrinsic control of tumor progression and intratumoral heterogeneity"
Institution: Stanford University School of Medicine
Award Program: Physician-Scientist
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Paul A. Khavari, MD, PhD
Cancer Type: Skin
Research Area: Carcinogenesis
Anusha Kalbasi, MD

Immune checkpoint inhibitors, a standard of care for metastatic melanoma, release the brakes on a patient's T cells, so they can attack a tumor. Some patients, however, relapse when resistance to treatment occurs. Dr. Kalbasi will lead a clinical trial to test a new immunotherapy treatment approach for patients with this deadly skin cancer, who did not respond to standard therapies. He will identify patients whose melanoma tumor cells express a protein called IL13Ra2. He will then collect the patient's immune T cells, engineer them to identify tumor cells that express the protein and reinfuse the T cells to kill tumor cells inside the patient. In contrast to immune checkpoint inhibitors that require regular intravenous doses, these engineered chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells are a one-time treatment that theoretically protect the body for life. This clinical trial may also offer insights on how CAR T therapy overcomes tumor resistance mechanisms to treat patients with metastatic melanoma.

Project title: "IL13Ra2 Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T cells for metastatic melanoma"
Institution: University of California, Los Angeles
Award Program: Clinical Investigator
Sponsor(s) / Mentor(s): Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD, and Christine Brown, PhD
Cancer Type: Skin
Research Area: Immunotherapy
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