Sylvester Associate Director Receives $2.5 Million Grant for Predictive Testing of Ocular Melanoma
A Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center clinician and researcher has been awarded a $2.5 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to study predictive testing of ocular (or uveal) melanoma, one of the deadliest types of cancer.
“Our objective is to improve survival by developing highly accurate prognostic tests, based on biomarkers we discover in the lab,” said J. William Harbour, M.D., associate director for basic research at Sylvester, and the Mark J. Daily Chair and vice chairman for translational research at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
“Patients will benefit directly from this personalized genomic medicine approach,” added Harbour, who has spent two decades studying uveal melanomas, an aggressive form of ocular cancer that leads to death in up to half of patients.
Under the five-year grant for “Molecular Predictive Testing in Ocular Melanoma,” Harbour will lead a collaborative trial involving 30 centers in the U.S. and Canada. About half of all patients diagnosed annually with ocular melanoma in the U.S. are expected to enroll in the clinical trial.
“This will be the largest and most innovative study ever initiated by a single investigator for this form of cancer,” Harbour said.
The participating centers have formed the groundbreaking Collaborative Ocular Oncology Group, headed by Harbour, to conduct innovative, cost-effective and high quality clinical trials in uveal melanoma and other forms of eye cancer.
“One innovative aspect of this study is that all patients will be treated at their local ocular oncology centers, which will enter data directly into an encrypted online database, reducing the time and cost of the research,” Harbour said. “The patients’ biopsy samples will be sent to the Castle Biosciences centralized CAP-accredited, CLIA-certified laboratory to assure consistent industry-standard clinical grade processing and analysis.”
With prior support from NIH grants, Harbour developed a gene expression profile (GEP) prognostic test for uveal melanoma that is now the first-in-class industry standard and is widely available through Castle Biosciences to assess a patient’s metastatic risk and guide treatment decisions.
“While the information obtained from the GEP test, which is performed on a tiny needle biopsy sample, has dramatically improved our ability to take care of patients, we strive to extract even more personalized information from that single biopsy sample,” Harbour said. “For example, newly discovered genetic mutations and a novel biomarker called PRAME may allow us to determine the timing of metastasis and to guide the choice of treatment for individual patients, which is the ultimate hallmark of precision medicine.”
Uveal melanoma, the most common primary ocular cancer, is very different from melanoma of the skin. While skin melanomas tend to invade lymph nodes, uveal melanomas go directly through the bloodstream to the liver and other organs, where the cancer cells might remain dormant for years before flaring up. Uveal melanomas are usually treated with a form of local radiation called brachytherapy, in which a radioactive iodine plaque is placed on the eye surface overlying the tumor for a few days, although some of the more advanced cases require eye removal.