Advances in Skin Cancer Research and Treatment at Northwestern: A Melanoma Update

(left to right) Dr. Jeffrey Wayne, Dr. Karl Bilimoria, Dr. Amy Paller, Dr. Pedram Gerami, Dr. Leonidas Platanias, Dr. Jennifer Choi, Dr. June Robinson, and Dr. Jeffrey Sosman.

On May 15, faculty within the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University and the Department of Dermatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine presented a panel discussion on advances in melanoma detection and treatment to supporters and friends of Northwestern Medicine. Amy Paller, MD, MS, the Walter J. Hamlin Professor and chair of Dermatology, spoke about the strong research and clinical programs connected through the Skin Cancer Institute at Northwestern Medicine (SCINMed) and the Department of Dermatology, which consistently ranks between fourth and sixth in the United States in dermatology funding awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“Our multidisciplinary clinics are designed to promote training and collaboration, bringing a variety of perspectives to patient cases,” said Dr. Paller. “In addition to strong basic science and clinical trials programs, we also seek to educate both our trainees and our patients.” Dr. Paller is professor of Dermatology and Pediatrics and serves as director of the NIH-funded Skin Disease Research Center at Northwestern.

Pedram Gerami, MD, director of both SCINMed and the Melanoma Program within the Department of Dermatology, served as the panel’s moderator. “At Northwestern, we have one of the most comprehensive skin programs in the country, largely thanks to the people sitting on today’s panel, all of whom share a strong commitment to patients,” he said. “I feel honored and privileged to work with this group.”

A Plethora of Treatment Options

The five panelists spoke about their work focusing on the detection and treatment of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. Melanoma is a less common type of skin cancer that is prone to growth and metastasis. For patients diagnosed with melanoma, there are a number of treatment options available, many of which are being studied and perfected at Northwestern.

“Patients come here for our entire team—to benefit from the expertise of a group of experts,” said Jeffrey Wayne, MD, FACS, chief of Surgical Oncology and professor of Surgery and Dermatology. “We have a bi-weekly melanoma conference where we get together as a group to discuss and customize treatment plans on an individual patient basis.”

Even though his specialty is surgical cancer treatment, Dr. Wayne hopes to ultimately reduce the number of melanoma cases that require surgery.

Several panelists shared updates on non-surgical treatment options, including Karl Bilimoria, MD, MS, who is the John Benjamin Murphy Professor of Surgery, professor of Medical Social Sciences, and vice chair for Quality at Feinberg. Dr. Bilimoria spoke about isolated limb perfusion therapy, a treatment in which chemotherapy is administered to an isolated limb on the body where melanoma is not responding to other treatments. “In the right circumstances, this therapy allows a higher concentration of chemotherapy to be delivered when other avenues of treatment have failed,” said Dr. Bilimoria.

Jeffrey Sosman, MD, who is director of the Melanoma Program and co-leader of the Translational Research in Solid Tumors (TRIST) program at the Lurie Cancer Center, as well as professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology/Oncology, spoke about his work in immune-based therapy of melanoma.

“Over the last 10 years, we have made significant progress in the evolution of immunotherapy, the nature of which I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. We’ve made great strides forward in the use of targeted therapy that works with a specific alteration in the tumor, that is driving the tumor itself,” said Dr. Sosman. “In addition, we can now analyze a tumor both under a microscope and through genetic testing in order to better predict how it will likely respond to a particular immunotherapy drug.”

Leonidas C. Platanias, MD, PhD, director of the Lurie Cancer Center, shared how the Lurie Cancer Center is poised to make a huge impact in the realm of dermatology. “We have a unique research infrastructure, allowing us to focus on the most cutting-edge and promising investigations in all types of cancer,” he said. “It is remarkable how quickly things transform in this field, and our comprehensive program is primed to address this ever-changing climate.”

Cancer Prevention and Education

Jennifer N. Choi, MD, associate professor of Dermatology and chief of the Division of Oncodermatology, addressed melanoma risk and prevention. Dr. Choi specializes in providing skin care for patients undergoing cancer treatment, as well as for treating patients with skin cancer.

“To prevent first-time or recurring melanoma, you must focus on what you can control, not what you can’t,” said Dr. Choi. “The most important steps everyone can take are protection from sun exposure, both UV-A and UV-B rays, and attendance at regular dermatology check-ups.”

June K. Robinson, MD, who is a research professor of Dermatology, spoke about her leadership of clinical studies that examine behavior among at-risk populations as a way to inform the development of novel interventions. In particular, she highlighted a study in which she and her team posted melanoma screening and risk information in a mammogram office to reach a target population that is at high risk for developing melanoma.

“It’s about finding that teachable moment where we can help people to learn more about melanoma screening and get access to follow-up if they need it,” said Dr. Robinson. When melanoma is detected in its early stages, the five-year survival rate is nearly 100 percent. Since only 16 percent of melanomas are found by physicians, direct patient education is crucial.

Dr. Robinson also thanked those in attendance for their attentiveness to this field: “Our research has come to fruition because of people like you,” she said. “We need you to continue volunteering to help us spread the word.”

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To learn more about supporting the work of the Skin Cancer Institute of Northwestern Medicine, or to make a more targeted gift, please contact Elizabeth Gordon at 312-503-0759 or elizabeth.gordon@northwestern.edu.

“At Northwestern, we have one of the most comprehensive skin programs in the country, largely thanks to the people sitting on today’s panel, all of whom share a strong commitment to patients. I feel honored and privileged to work with this group.”

- Pedram Gerami, MD