Institute Researchers Co-Author Landmark Report on Melanoma

December 22, 2015

Dave S.B. Hoon, PhD, and Sharon Huang, PhD, are among the authors of a paper published online in June in the prestigious science journal Cell, that presents a dramatically different way to understand, classify and potentially treat melanoma skin cancer. The paper is the work of The Cancer Genome Atlas Research Network, a multi-center project supported by the National Institutes of Health to better understand the molecular basis of cancer.

The researchers who participate in the network, which includes Dr. Hoon and Dr. Huang, are the leading thinkers in the field and are charged with contributing research to answer key questions in cancer molecular medicine. Dr. Hoon is the director of molecular oncology, chief of scientific intelligence and director of the genomics sequencing center at the John Wayne Cancer Institute. Dr. Huang is an assistant professor of molecular oncology.

“This is an ongoing collaboration involving groups around the country and world,” Dr. Hoon says. “Our approach is not to work in a silo but to work with cooperative groups. You share data and resources and expertise. That allows us to better answer questions about melanoma. It takes advantage of an individual center’s skills.”

“The findings in the two Cell publications will also allow us to identify new, potential therapeutics. Eventually patients should benefit from these landmark studies.” – Dr. Dave S.B. Hoon

The paper proposes a revised way of thinking about cutaneous melanoma. Instead of looking at melanoma as a single disease with a standard treatment, The Cancer Genome Atlas researchers found evidence that the disease has multiple genetic subtypes based on the most prevalent significantly mutated genes: BRAF, NRAS, NF1 and triple-wild-type.

The research should help clinicians determine which tumors are more aggressive, which are more likely to respond to certain treatments, and help establish biomarkers for genes and other factors that could predict disease progression.

“The study gives us a comprehensive analysis of the landscape of melanoma mutations,” Dr. Hoon says. “It allows us to understand how melanomas arise and progress, the different molecular changes that are ongoing and the frequency of those mutations in the population.”

This study is a validation of an earlier benchmark study of melanoma mutations that Dr. Hoon coauthored in the journal Cell. “The Institute is honored to participate on these two historical and benchmark studies that will be referenced for years to come,” he says. “The data generated from both studies is enormous.”

The research moves the field in the direction of personalized, precision treatment for melanoma.

“It gives you the option: If you have this melanoma mutation, you can get drug ‘X,’” Dr. Hoon explains. “It will also allow us to identify in the future why patients with specific patterns of genomic changes progress more than others and respond to treatment. The findings in the two Cell publications will also allow us to identify new, potential therapeutics. Eventually patients should benefit from these landmark studies.”

There are already two approved drugs targeted for specific genetic mutations. But more work is needed to create drugs that target other genomic aberrations.

“We’re moving faster to classify molecular subtypes,” he says. “Our group has been using the data to develop new prognostic assays for predicting melanoma progression to the brain.”

The new melanoma subtype framework is based on a five-year study of 331 people—the largest-ever integrative analysis of melanoma. Institute researchers used tumor samples stored in the specimen repository to contribute to the analysis.

The Cell paper includes a posthumous acknowledgement of the research of Dr. Morton noting: “This article is dedicated to the memory of Donald L. Morton, MD, a pioneer in melanoma oncology, who passed away on January 10, 2014.”

Since its founding, Institute researchers have been advocates of molecular medicine and continue to pursue this research with the support of donors and grants, Dr. Hoon explains. “The John Wayne Cancer Institute has always been in the forefront of applied cancer molecular genetic assays,” he says.

To learn more about innovative melanoma research, please contact Michael Avila at 310-829-8351 or michael.avila@stjohns.org.