Skin cancer researchers receive $11.5 million SPORE grant

Researchers at the School of Medicine have received $11.5 million from the National Cancer Institute to combat two forms of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma and melanoma, University officials announced last week. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common skin cancer diagnosed in the United States, while melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer.

The Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPORE) in Skin Cancer grant was awarded by the National Cancer Institute. The SPORE project seeks to promote multidisciplinary research aimed at translating ideas generated from basic science into clinical applications, and University researchers said they plan to apply that approach to skin cancer.

“The intent [of the Yale SPORE program] is to help bridge the gap between basic scientific research and clinical research aimed at helping patients,” said Dr. Mario Sznol, co-principal investigator and a medical oncologist. “We will do research that generates hypotheses that can be tested on patients to help treat cancer patients better.”

Ruth Halaban, a department of dermatology researcher and Yale Cancer Center member, will lead the project as its “principal investigator.” The other researchers are drawn from many different basic science and clinical departments, including Dermatology, Internal Medicine/Oncology, Pathology, Genetics, Immunobiology, Laboratory Medicine, Epidemiology and Public Health, and Surgery.

Halaban said one of the goals of Yale’s SPORE program is to assess the environmental and genetic factors behind the early onset of basal cell carcinoma. This research will help doctors formulate guidelines for prevention of the disease, which is diagnosed in over 1 million Americans each year, she said.

“By knowing the environmental factors that cause basal cell carcinoma, we can warn people at risk to alter their behavior to avoid these environmental factors,” Halaban said. “By knowing genetic predispositions that some people have towards developing skin cancer under certain conditions, we can warn them to avoid those conditions.”

The studies are expected to help create an efficient system for assessing a patient’s likelihood of responding to therapy. They are also expected to result in the development of blood or tissue tests that clinicians can use to monitor the impact of drugs. In addition, the Yale SPORE program will introduce new immunological therapies that will boost a patient’s immune response to eradicate cancer cells.

Dean of the School of Medicine Robert Alpern said excellence in skin cancer research is one of the strengths of the School of Medicine. The University especially benefits when it receives a large grant — particularly one as prestigious as the SPORE grant — that unites many different departments behind a common agenda, he said.

“It’s a real sign of success for a cancer center to get a SPORE,” Alpern said. “These SPOREs are almost always more money than the cancer center core grant itself.”

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