The Wistar Institute Tapped for Global, Women-Led Melanoma Research Team Funded by the Melanoma Research Alliance

Published: Monday, Jun 13, 2016

Leading melanoma scientist Ashani Weeraratna, Ph.D., of The Wistar Institute, is part of a new, international, research team awarded the L’Oréal Paris USA–MRA Team Science Award for Women in Scientific Research by the Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA), the largest private funder of melanoma research worldwide. Weeraratna, associate professor in Wistar’s Tumor Microenvironment and Metastasis Program, joins top scientists from the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO), Cancer Research UK Edinburgh Centre (University of Edinburgh), the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York. The team received $900,000 to tackle the mechanisms that distinguish (and mark) fast-growing melanomas from those that are dormant.

The prestigious L’Oréal Paris USA–MRA Team Science Award for Women in Scientific Research recognizes the collaborative efforts by top-notch female investigators whose research focuses on malignant melanoma, a characteristically aggressive cancer type.

Increasing in incidence every year, melanoma is the only disease where lesions barely two millimeters thick can disseminate (metastasize) throughout a person’s body. Some patients succumb to metastasis within months, while in others the tumor cells can remain silent or “dormant” for years or decades before striking. This differential in behavior is unclear and is the focus of the collaboration.

“This L’Oréal Paris USA-MRA grant demonstrates the catalyzing effect research across institutes and continents brings to pushing the envelope forward on breakthroughs in melanoma diagnosis and treatment,” Weeraratna said. “It is also a bold statement about L’Oréal Paris’s and MRA’s shared commitment to the innovative high-caliber work female scientists bring to cancer research and discovery, which will inspire many more young women to attain jobs in science.”

There are four major goals of this three-year project. The first goal of the project is to identify biomarkers of active metastasis. Secondly, the team will define how tumor cells can become “dormant,” and why at some point, they get “awakened.” Both of these studies will utilize sophisticated imaging models to visualize and trace melanoma cells in vivo from early stages of tumor development as well as reagents accessible by the entire team, particularly a large set of clinical specimens. The third goal aims to validate treatments that could attack both dividing and silent melanoma cells. The fourth objective is to mentor and empower new female researchers in the melanoma field.

“We are thrilled by this L’Oréal Paris USA-MRA grant,” said team leader Maria S. (Marisol) Soengas, Ph.D., head of the Melanoma Group and the dean for Academic Affairs at the CNIO. “Visualizing and treating silent melanoma cells has been a major challenge in the field, and therefore requires large collaborative platforms to translate basic results into long-lasting clinical improvements. This partnership will try to bridge this gap by integrating efforts of specialists in molecular biology, tumor dormancy, pathology, and molecular oncology.”

In 2016, the MRA has funded 17 additional grants to support a total of 46 investigators in 30 institutions spanning seven countries. To date, MRA has dedicated more than $79 million to foster important discoveries across the globe to better understand and treat malignant melanoma.

Since 2013, L’Oréal Paris USA has donated $750,000 to MRA to support the fight to prevent melanoma. For the next three years, L’Oréal Paris USA will continue supporting MRA by donating $250,000 per year. More information can be found at

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The Wistar Institute is an international leader in biomedical research with special expertise in cancer research and vaccine development. Founded in 1892 as the first independent nonprofit biomedical research institute in the United States, Wistar has held the prestigious Cancer Center designation from the National Cancer Institute since 1972. The Institute works actively to ensure that research advances move from the laboratory to the clinic as quickly as possible.

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