Skin Cancer: Leading the Fight

Skin Cancer: Leading the Fight

07.05.11 | By Kate Connors

PhRMA recently released its Medicines in Development for Skin Diseases report, which found 74 medicines in development for skin cancers. This week on The Catalyst, we'll be looking closely at melanoma, considered to be the most dangerous type of skin cancer.

Today, we start off the series by sitting down with Debra Black, the Founder and Chair of the Melanoma Research Alliance - and a melanoma survivor.
First, tell me about your personal history with melanoma.
Roughly 10 years ago, I had a very early stage melanoma on my right calf. As a result, I began seeing the head dermatologist at a major institution here in Manhattan - every four months, because I was a high-risk patient. Then, about six years ago, I noticed something on the bottom of my foot. The doctor said it was a wart and kept freezing it off and burning it off, but it wouldn't go away. Still, he didn't biopsy it.
Through good fortune I have a friend who is a podiatrist. I finally asked him to look at it and he immediately suspected melanoma. It turns out he was right, and the tumor was stage 2. I was told that I had a 50 percent chance of the cancer spreading and that if it spread, it would be a death sentence. Thankfully, it wasn't.
How did you go about creating the Melanoma Research Alliance?
After I went through my second round with melanoma, I spoke with Mike Milken, who is the founder and chairman of the Prostate Cancer Foundation, which has been incredibly successful at both increasing awareness and driving research funding. He said to my husband and me, "Do you want to do for melanoma what I did for prostate cancer?" I said, "Yes!" Mike's father had died of melanoma 40 years ago, and when I realized how little had changed in treating late-stage melanoma, I realized that more needed to be done.
The Alliance is young - still only four years. But how can you describe its growth in that time?
Our primary goal of the Melanoma Research Alliance is to reduce pain, suffering and death from melanoma, and to that end, our main emphasis has been funding of research. In the beginning, we had to work to gain the respect and involvement of the scientific community.
We were lucky that it is an involved, dynamic community, and we have already funded more than $25 million in three and a half years in our effort to fast-forward research and bring collaboration to a comparatively under-funded and under-appreciated cancer. Every penny that we take in goes to research, focusing on early detection of the disease, focusing on young investigators, trying to work with everyone in the field.
We hold a scientific retreat each year in order to further encourage collaboration. It's about sharing what things don't work and what things do work, because the dollars and the time are precious.
What are the goals that you have set out for the Alliance?
We like to see the money that we give used as seed money for researchers so that if they have exciting developments, they can move quickly and not waste time waiting for grants. Hopefully, our money will allow them to develop their work to the level where it needs to be for them to move on to apply for National Cancer Institute and National Institutes of Health grants. Where there's opportunity and potential, we support it.
We also care very much about educating people about the dangers of melanoma, especially the dangers of tanning beds. It's the number one cancer in young women ages 20 to 30 because you have a 75 percent higher chance of developing melanoma if you're a regular sun-bed user.
We want people to look at their bodies for changes and we want people to get check-ups. We want to catch them early so that they are more treatable.
We want to be out of business. We want to find a cure for melanoma.
What challenges remain for you?
People continue to see skin cancer as "cancer light." They don't appreciate what a devastating disease it is. Also, people of color can die of melanoma just like anyone else, but they often don't realize the risk that is there.
We're also extremely excited about two recent high-profile developments in melanoma research, but people need to understand that neither of those treatments would be for all melanoma patients. So, while we are thrilled about how much attention melanoma is getting these days, we all need to recognize that we still have a lot of work to do.

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