UNC Lineberger receives jointly awarded $1 million research grant to investigate novel target in melanoma

The $1 million award from the Melanoma Research Alliance and the Saban Family Foundation will support research to improve the treatment of melanoma, the most aggressive type of skin cancer.

The Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA), and the Saban Family Foundation, a charitable foundation focused on improving education and healthcare in the U.S. and Israel, have jointly awarded a $1 million grant to a team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the University of Colorado.

The grant will investigate a novel target in melanoma, MerTK, which was discovered in Dr. Shelley Earp’s lab with a then-UNC medical student and doctoral candidate Doug Graham. Dr. Graham, now a professor of pediatric oncology at the University of Colorado, and Dr. Earp have been collaborating on this project for over a decade and were joined five years ago by Stephen Frye, PhD and Xaiodong Wang, PhD, UNC Lineberger members in UNC’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy, who have worked with the team to develop a drug that targets MerTK activity.

Their recent publication showed that MerTK is elevated in metastatic melanoma and that the team’s prototype drug could slow the growth of melanoma cells both alone and even more effectively in combination with some of the newly approved melanoma drugs. Approximately half of the funds will be used by the UNC Lineberger/Colorado team to develop their small molecule drug, while the other half will be used by team members in Israel who will concentrate on understanding how MerTK is activated from outside the melanoma cell and how that might be blocked to enhance therapy. 

“Melanoma rates continue to increase worldwide, while the rates of other common cancers have been decreasing,” said Debra Black, MRA Co-Founder and Chair. “Several new treatment options have been made available to melanoma patients in recent years, but there is still an urgent need for better treatments. It will take collaboration from around the globe and all sectors of the research industry to defeat this disease. MRA is incredibly grateful to the Saban Family Foundation for their generous commitment to melanoma research.”

“We are tremendously excited to partner with MRA to fund research during this pivotal time in the battle against melanoma,” said Dr. Cheryl Saban, President of the Saban Family Foundation. “The Foundation’s gift will help fund promising research from world-class institutions in Israel and the U.S., speeding the development of therapies for this aggressive form of skin cancer.”