Dr. Zhentao Yang and Dr. Yujue Wang, UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center researchers, have been chosen as dermatology fellows by the Melanoma Research Alliance, the largest nonprofit funder of melanoma research. The year-long fellowship provides funding to promising clinicians and researchers-in-training to help advance research in melanoma prevention and early detection.
Although melanoma only accounts for about 1% of skin cancers, it does cause a large majority of skin cancer deaths. And while recent treatment advances have helped people diagnosed with melanoma live longer, the rates of melanoma have been rising rapidly over the past few decades. This year it’s estimated that more than 100,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with melanoma.
For Yang, a post-doctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Roger Lo, the award will help him further his work on acral lentiginous melanoma, which accounts for about 2-3% of all melanomas. Although it is not the most common subtype of melanoma, it comprises over 30% of cutaneous melanoma in the patients with skin of color, such as Blacks, Asians and Hispanics. Yang will be addressing the question of whether tumor clones within early stage of the disease from skin-of-color patients are capable of distant metastasis. He will then determine the molecular characteristics of these metastasis-capable tumor clones down to the single-cell level, which can detect these potentially rare subpopulations within the primary or early stage tumors in the skin or the local lymph nodes. Through his work, Yang is hoping to be able to develop biomarkers in the early disease phase that would allow researchers to predict whether a patient’s early disease is likely to develop into distant and brain metastasis and reduce the chances of survival.
“As a young investigator at the beginning of my career, getting recognition from Melanoma Research Alliance means a lot,” said Yang. “It encourages me to continue working hard and gives me a steady support to further my research aiming to help skin-of-color patients with acral melanoma.”
Wang, a post-doctoral scholar in the lab of Dr. Roger Lo, will use the funds to study genomic features of primary melanoma that are predictive of brain metastasis. The most common contributors to brain metastasis are lung cancers, breast cancers and cutaneous melanoma. Up to 80% of patients with brain metastasis harbor melanoma and have an average lifespan of only three to six months. With no known molecular prognostic markers or mechanisms of primary melanoma, Wang will be studying genomic and/or transcriptomic sub-clones within primary melanoma that may drive melanoma brain metastases and may be detectable in smaller proportions within primary disease.
“I am thankful for my mentor Dr. Roger Lo’s guidance and the senior lab members’ help in receiving this award, and I am grateful for this critical support offered by MRA,” said Wang. “This award will help me to advance my professional development as a young investigator and allow me to pursue research in elucidating the biological factors that lead to brain metastasis, which I hope will lead to molecular monitoring and/or systemic therapeutic intervention for early-stage melanoma.”