Research and Training Grants in Skin Cancer

The American Cancer Society (ACS) funds scientists and medical professionals who research cancer or train at medical schools, universities, research institutes, and hospitals throughout the United States. We use a rigorous and independent peer review process to select the most innovative research projects to fund. Currently, we have: 

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Total Skin Cancer Grants in Effect as of March 1, 2020

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Total Skin Cancer Grant Funding in Effect as of March 1, 2020

Spotlight on Skin Cancer Grantees

Here are a few of the skin cancer investigators currently receiving research grants from the American Cancer Society. They are looking for new ways to save lives with new and  better options to  prevent, treat, and manage skin cancer.

“Live Imaging” Helps Researchers Understand a Skin Cell’s Natural Resistance to Basal Cell Carcinoma

Grantee: Peggy Myung, MD, PhD
Yale University
Area of Study:
Development, Differentiation and Cancer
Grant Term: 1/1/18 to 12/31/21

The Challenge: The most common type of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma. Treating it with surgery is expensive and can leave deforming scars, and treating it with current targeted drugs can cause side effects that often keep people from taking them. Or, those drugs stop working.

The Research: Peggy Myung, MD, PhD, studies the microenvironment surrounding healthy skin cells to learn more about how it affects normal skin cell development. She and her research team believe this knowledge will help them understand how the microenvironment influences cells once they become cancerous.

They use a technique called live imaging to watch how the skin cells work inside their environment. In the past, the only way to see cells under a microscope was to dye them, which caused the cells to die. Live imaging, though, uses fluorescent stains that allow the cells to be studied under a microscope while they're still alive and working.

The Myung lab particularly focuses on better understanding the cell's built-in mechanisms for coping with mutations and staying healthy.

The Goal and Potential Long-Term Benefits: Myung’s goal is to inform the development of new, more effective drugs for basal cell carcinoma. Her team specifically focuses on new drugs to help boost a skin cell’s natural ability to fend off cancer.

Developing Tools to Test New Treatments for Metastatic Melanoma

Grantee: Jia-Ray Yu, PhD
New York University School of Medicine in New York City
Area of Study: DNA Mechanisms in Cancer
Grant Term: 7/1/17 to 6/30/20

The Challenge: Melanoma that's spread (metastatic melanoma) accounts for the vast majority of skin cancer deaths. People treated with the current targeted drugs tend to eventually stop responding to the drugs and have a high chance of the cancer coming back after treatment. And many patients don’t have a good response to the currently available immunotherapies.

The Research: Jia-Ray Yu, PhD, and his team are looking for new, better treatments for melanoma that has spread. Their focus is on an enzyme called EZH2/PRC2. This enzyme can affect certain genes inside a cell, which can allow cancer cells to grow. Yu’s team is testing drugs that block this enzyme in mice.

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: Yu’s short-term goal is to develop a tool to screen for new ways to block the EZH2 inhibitors that may work better than those studied so far. The long-term hope is that their findings will move new treatments for metastic melanoma further along in animal studies and closer to use in patients.

Identifying New Treatments for Merkel Cell Carcinoma

Grantee: Ling Gao, MD, PhD
Institution: Tibor Rubin VA Medical Center in Long Beach, California
Area of Research: Tumor Biology and Genomics
Grant Term: 7/1/17 to 6/30/21

The Challenge: Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is a rare and aggressive cancer of the skin. It’s much less common than melanoma, but it's much deadlier, partly because MCC is more likely to already have spread beyond the skin by the time it is found. There aren’t many treatments that specifically and effectively kill MCC cells. Even when MCC is treated, it often spreads (metastasizes) to nearby lymph nodes, the brain, bones, liver, or lungs. And, unfortunately, MCC is so rare that it’s hard for researchers to obtain MCC cells to study. 

The Research: Ling Gao, MD, PhD, and her team have successfully retrieved MCC cells from 12 patients. They’ve been able to keep the cells alive, and grow them in the lab for further study. The team is focused on how to use drugs to block a specific protein called PI3K that helps MCC grow. Gao's team has been able to kill MCC cells in the lab and in mice, using drugs called Pl3K inhibitor, like idelalisib.

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: Gao hopes these studies will pave the way for clinical trials using one or more drugs that block P13K to help those with MCC.

Testing a Wearable Device to Improve Sun Behaviors in Melanoma Survivors

Grantee: Rachel I. Vogel, PhD
Institution: University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis
Area of Research: Cancer Control, Survivorship, and Outcomes
Term: 7/01/2019 to 06/30/2023

The Challenge: Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is a main cause of melanoma. Melanoma survivors have an increased risk of developing another melanoma, so it’s vital that they stay out of the sun and protect themselves when they’re outside. Yet, research shows many don’t. Rachel I. Vogel, PhD, found that about 1 in 5 melanoma survivors still get sunburned, and 1 in 10 still try to get a tan. The question is, can technology help them change their habits?

The Research: Rachel Vogel, PhD, and her team are the first to test a wearable device that tracks and sends alerts about the time and intensity of sun/UV radiation exposure. It also provides regularly scheduled recommendations about how patients wearing the device can protect themselves while in the sun.

Her study involves 248 survivors. One group of melanoma survivors will wear the new device and another will wear a dummy device. Both groups will take a survey to answer questions about their sunburns and sun-protection habits, such as using sunscreen, wearing a hat and sunglasses, seeking shade, and avoiding the sun during peak hours.

The team is testing how well the device helps reduce sunburns and increase sun-protection habits.

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: If Vogel’s device meets its goals, it has the potential to lower the number of people who develop second melanomas. Since survivors’ families are at increased risk for melanoma, wearing the device might help them, too. It’s possible that anyone could use this device to reduce their risk for all forms of skin cancer.

Exploring a Melanoma Cell’s Microenvironment for Potential New Drug Targets

Grantee: Yuri Bunimovich, MD, PhD
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Area of Research: Cancer Progression and Metastasis
Grant Term: 7/1/19 to 6/30/23

The Challenge: Many medicines used to treat cancer, like chemotherapy, don’t work well against melanoma. Some newer melanoma drugs target cells in the microenvironment, like immune cells. But other cells in the microenvironment, including nerve cells (neurons), might work as potential drug targets, too, and need more study.

The Research: Yuri Bunimovich, MD, PhD, and his team study sensory neurons and Schwann cells in a melanoma cell’s microenvironment. Sensory neurons send messages to the brain about heat, cold, and pain from the skin, and one of the functions of Schwann cells is to help protect, repair, and maintain neurons.

Researchers know melanoma cells interact with Schwann cells and sensory nerves, but they don’t know much more. The team’s early data suggests these cells can work together to help melanoma tumors grow, especially when the cancer’s just starting to develop. This grant supports their work to learn how that happens.

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: If we could find new treatments to keep melanoma from spreading, fewer people would die from it. The more we know about the cells in the microenvironment that help melanoma grow, the closer we may be to identifying new targets for drugs to attack. 

A Transparent Fish Allows Researchers to See Melanoma as It Develops and Spreads

Grantee: Richard M. White, MD, PhD
Institution: Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, New York
Area of Research: Cancer Progression and Metastasis
Grant Term: 07/01/2019 to 06/30/2023

The Challenge: Research has shown that the behavior of a cancer cell can be influenced by many types of cells in its microenvironment. Some newer melanoma drugs target cells in the microenvironment, like immune cells. Now researchers are studying other types of cells in a melanoma cell’s microenvironment to learn more potential targets for new drugs.

The Research: Richard M. White, MD, PhD, and his team are using a unique research tool – a transparent adult zebrafish – to learn more about how melanoma develops. A zebrafish’s see-through skin allows researchers to view cancer from the moment it starts and while it spreads. White’s team discovered that melanoma cells interact with fat cells under the skin. Called adipocytes, these fat cells completely surround advanced melanomas that have spread far from their starting point.

White’s early findings showed that a protein in adipocytes helps transfer fat droplets into melanoma cells, making them more likely to spread. His team also identified a chemical that can block that transfer and almost completely stop the cancer’s growth.

With this grant, White’s team is learning more about how cancer cells interact with the fat cells in their microenvironment. They’re using the zebrafish and also human cells.

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: White’s team wants to learn whether the chemical they found has the potential to become a target for a new melanoma drug. If it does, they’ll study who it’s most likely to help.

From Our Researchers

The American Cancer Society employs a staff of full-time researchers who relentlessly pursue the answers that help us understand how to prevent, detect, and treat cancer, including skin cancer.

ACS Skin Cancer Research News