Wistar’s scientific community that studies melanoma and the long-standing supporters and patient advocates reached one of their most important moments with the first Noreen O’Neill Melanoma Research Symposium, a meeting that brought an international panel of scientists to Philadelphia to discuss the most advanced topics in melanoma research.
The symposium coincided with the establishment of the Noreen O’Neill Melanoma Research Fund at The Wistar Institute, through which Wistar will continue to advance transformative melanoma research and advocate for melanoma awareness and education. The newly established fund is the offspring of the Noreen O’Neill Foundation for Melanoma Research (NOFMR), founded in Philadelphia in 1998 and active for almost two decades.
The NOFMR sprouted from the prolific encounter of Wistar’s Meenhard Herlyn, D.V.M., D.Sc., Caspar Wistar Professor and director of The Wistar Institute Melanoma Research Center, who is a world leader in melanoma research, and Noreen O’Neill. At the time of her diagnosis, Noreen was the Director of Research and Development at the First Union Center. While courageously fighting the disease, Noreen dedicated herself to raising funds in support of research, increasing public awareness and promoting patient advocacy. Noreen passed away in 2000, but her legacy to the community continues, as the Foundation has created a common space where researchers, patients and advocates come together in the quest for a cure.
Kate O’Neill, Noreen’s sister and President of the NOFMR, opened the meeting with an emotional speech handing over the baton of the Noreen O’Neill Melanoma Research Fund to Herlyn and Wistar.
The symposium – titled “Melanoma: Advances in Therapy and Biology” – drew nearly 200 attendees and gathered an international panel of experts to discuss their latest advancements in melanoma research, striking a good balance between basic and translational research for attendees.
“Our speakers presented a very well-rounded picture of what's state-of-the-art in melanoma research, touching on most of the hot topics being currently investigated in the laboratories worldwide,” said Ashani Weeraratna, Ph.D., Ira Brind Associate Professor and Program Leader of the Tumor Microenvironment and Metastasis Program at Wistar.
The past decade has seen the advent of targeted therapies and immunotherapies that have brought tremendous advances in melanoma treatment and changed the disease outcome for many patients. Unfortunately, as more than one speaker noted, the tumor cells are smart in finding ways around the new therapies and developing resistance, causing many patients to eventually relapse. Therefore, much effort is being put in discovering the mechanisms of acquired resistance and developing strategies to overcome it. Some of the talks focused on sequencing and other approaches to profile the genetic and epigenetic makeup of the tumor that are gaining more and more recognition as a tool to individually characterize each melanoma case and match it to the most appropriate therapy.
Melanoma basic, developmental and stem cell biology were also extensively represented, as understanding how the tumor originates and progresses means laying the groundwork for advancing therapy. In particular, because metastatic disease is what eventually kills the patients, much effort is devoted to the study of the metastatic process, the environmental and genetic factors that favor the dissemination of tumor cells.
Sitting in the audience one could perceive the mutual respect of the scientists, suggestive of the highly collaborative nature of the melanoma research community. Most of the speakers had personal stories and pictures to share of one another, which at times gave the audience the impression of being at a friendly gathering rather than at a formal scientific conference. Many of them expressed their appreciation for how Herlyn, a pioneer at the forefront of the field for decades, has fostered that sense of community and collaboration among the new generation of researchers.
Despite the efforts to find more effective treatments, melanoma remains a very aggressive disease whose incidence is rising faster than that of any other form of cancer worldwide. Initiatives such as the Noreen O’Neill Melanoma Research Fund are crucial, now more than ever, to keep the public focused on ways to prevent and detect this disease and to advance research needed to beat it.