Hollings scientist receives Melanoma Research Alliance grant

May 28, 2021
Dr. Jen Wang stands in front of shelves of equipment in her lab
Dr. Jen Wang will use her grant to further her research on activating T-cells to fight melanoma and hopes to gain insight on therapies that could be more effective for patients. Photo by Marquel Coaxum

MUSC Hollings Cancer Center researcher Haizhen (Jen) Wang, Ph.D., recently was awarded a three-year $225,000 Young Investigator grant from the Melanoma Research Alliance.

MRA awards support innovative ideas that offer the promise of rapidly improving outcomes for patients facing melanoma. Each award was selected during MRA’s grant review through a rigorous peer review process and was confirmed by the MRA Board of Directors. The alliance, the largest nonprofit funder of melanoma research, announced $8.1 million in funding for 34 new awards that support research at 27 institutions in seven countries.

MRA chief science officer Marc Hurlbert, Ph.D., said in the organization's press release that MRA grant awards support scientists who are pushing the envelope to address some of the biggest questions in melanoma. “These include researchers working on modulating the microbiome to improve patient outcomes and others exploring strategies to understand and overcome resistance to therapies,” he said.

Wang said she is appreciative of the funding support. “This will aid my investigation into the mechanisms of tumor progression to help to build the picture of how to turn on anti-cancer T-cells in melanoma patients,” she said. Tumor microenvironment cells play profound roles in cancer progression, and T-cells have become a central focus for engaging the immune system in the fight against cancer, including melanoma, she explained.

“This will aid my investigation into the mechanisms of tumor progression to help to build the picture of how to turn on anti-cancer T-cells in melanoma patients.”
— Dr. Jen Wang

“If we can find a way to activate T-cells, this will lead to novel and promising strategies in this fight, such as cellular immunotherapies and checkpoint blockade. My research focuses on trying to figure out the mechanism to activate T-cells and preclinically test the effectiveness of this new therapeutic strategy on melanoma,” said Wang.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70. While more than two people die of skin cancer in the U.S. every hour, the five-year survival rate for melanoma is 99% when it is caught in the early stages. Data from the American Cancer Society shows that in the past decade, the number of new invasive melanoma cases diagnosed annually increased by 44%.

Hollings Cancer Center takes a multi-pronged approach to address skin cancer, including promoting routine skin cancer screenings and supporting collaborative research between clinicians and basic science researchers. Wang believes that the strong clinical research environment is one of Hollings’ top strengths, she said.

Wang, who also is an assistant professor in the Department of Cell and Molecular Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, is tackling the challenge of immunotherapy resistance in melanoma. She was recruited to MUSC in 2018 after completing her postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“I became excited about cancer research when I became a Ph.D. student. I often think, ‘What if I discover something that makes a difference?’ My goal is to further our understanding of how the immune system works in cancer so we can help more patients,” she said.

Melanoma has been a primary research focus for Wang since her postdoctoral training. Her prior research, published in Nature, found that cyclin-dependent kinase (CDK6) is an important pro-survival protein that can be exploited as a cancer therapy. Now she is looking at the function of CDK6 in T-cells that migrate into the tumor microenvironment.

“The evidence that this is an appropriate pathway to tackle is quite strong. It is just a stepwise process. The funding from the Melanoma Research Alliance will help me to recruit skilled staff and collect more data from clinical samples.” By combining data from animal models and coordinating with clinicians to look at the T-cells in human melanoma, progress will be made toward combination therapies that are more effective for patients, she said.