Health Care and Higher Education

MSU researchers may have developed melanoma treatment

Compound reduces spread of cancerous cells by 85-90 percent in tests.

January 20, 2017
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Gran Fondo
Funding from the MSU Gran Fondo, a noncompetitive cycling event in Grand Rapids that raises money for skin cancer awareness, prevention and research, was instrumental in the melanoma research. Courtesy Michigan State University

A recent discovery by Michigan State University College of Human Medicine researchers may lead to a breakthrough in treating melanoma.

For 13 years, MSU pharmacology professor Richard Neubig was researching a mechanism crucial to the development of the deadly skin cancer. Neubig and his team primarily were interested in finding a compound that could block the RhoC protein from signaling Myocardin-related transcription factors (MRTFs) from initiating growth in melanoma cells.

After many years of research, Neubig’s lab developed CCG-203971, a small-molecule drug compound that effectively stops the MRTFs from initiating the gene transcription process in melanoma cells. In numerous testings, the compound reduced the spread of melanoma cells by about 85-90 percent.

“With diseases like melanoma, it’s not the primary tumor in the skin that causes major problems for people, but when it spreads from the primary site to other organs, that’s when you have problems,” Neubig said. “What we have now is a compound that could prevent that spreading.”

Patients who have the signaling pathway turned on would benefit the most from the potential drug.

After the initial discovery the compound — which also is being tested to treat scleroderma — prevented the migration of melanoma in a Petri dish, the Neubig lab moved on to treating the disease in mice.

While testing on mice injected with melanoma cells, the team also found the compound reduced tumors in the lungs of those animals. Neubig called those trials the “centerpiece” of the team’s research paper, which is published in the January edition of Molecular Cancer Therapeutics.

The long process of getting to the point of publication was waylaid several times by having to scramble for funding. But it was funding from MSU Gran Fondo, a noncompetitive cycling event in Grand Rapids which raises money for skin cancer awareness, prevention and research, that pushed the project across the finish line.

It was with money provided by Gran Fondo — about $100,000 — that allowed Neubig to hire his co-author on the paper, postdoctoral student Kate Appleton.

“That took the project over the goal line and allowed us to get the full story out,” Neubig said. “This last burst allowed us to nail it down and get that published.”

Additional funding came from the National Institutes of Health.

Neubig said his team still is in the early phases of drug discovery and development and still needs to secure FDA approval and initiate how to best proceed with safety testing. At minimum, it would take between two and four years to begin human testing.

Though one major hurdle has been cleared, Neubig’s team once again will have to search for funding to continue the development of the potential drug. Neubig said an Investigational New Drug study typically costs between $1 million and $5 million. But the team remains determined to move forward with a drug that could save countless lives.

“We’re working very hard to get to the stage where we can move this to commercialization,” Neubig said.

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