Sun & Skin News

The Next Generation of Skin Cancer Innovators

By Skin Cancer Foundation • May 23, 2024

Medical breakthroughs start with an idea, and the awardees of our 2023 Research Grants program are leading the way. Allow us to introduce you to our donors and our three latest recipients, who share how they balance patient care, research and family life. 

Dr. Marcia Robbins-Wilf Research Grant Award, $25,000

Donor: Marcia Robbins-Wilf, EdD, has long been committed to education and philanthropy. She says that supporting the Foundation’s Research Grants “has been a rewarding path to seeing researchers’ big ideas come to life and make a difference.” She divides her time between Verona, New Jersey, and the Palm Beach area of Florida. 

Awardee: Riley McLean-Mandell, MD, Assistant Professor of Dermatology, UMass Chan Medical School, Worcester, Massachusetts

Field Trip: When not seeing patients, Mohs surgeon Riley McLean-Mandell, MD, enjoys the great outdoors, wearing sunscreen, of course.

Title of Project: “Effect of Immunosuppression on Cutaneous Malignancies in Organ Transplant”

Dr. McLean-Mandell, a Mohs surgeon, knows the well-established link between organ transplant patients and the risk of nonmelanoma skin cancers. But what she doesn’t understand is why some organ transplant patients develop one skin cancer every few years while others come in every three months with three new skin cancers. “There’s got to be something else going on with their skin,” she says.  

To find out, Dr. McLean-Mandell teamed up with UMass physician-scientist Mehdi Rashighi, MD, who researches skin immunity. “The short-term goal is to find out what is going on in the skin that is most dysregulated, putting it at a higher risk for skin cancer,” she says. “The long-term goal is to develop targeted therapies to repair what’s gone awry.”  

A Passion Project: “I’m a clinician; my priority is delivering the best care to my patients,” says Dr. McLean-Mandell. “This research is going to directly impact patients in the long run,” she says. “It’s a way of saying to my patients, ‘I care about you today, but I’ll also care about you in six months and 10 years from now.’” 

A Hands-On Approach to Balance: When Dr. McLean-Mandell isn’t seeing patients, she’s busy with her four children (ranging from ages 2 to 8), skiing in Vermont or spending days on the sports fields. She and her husband have even coached soccer teams. Of course, given her line of work, sun protection is always top of mind. “As a Mohs surgeon, I think about skin cancers in certain locations more than others,” she says. “It’s so unpleasant for people when I have to cut their eyelids for skin cancers.” Protective sunglasses are a must. 

For “me” time, the surgeon has found a different way to work with her hands: ceramics. She says she uses the same mental muscles she does during surgery. “With skin cancer surgery, a lot of repairing the defects comes down to that individual person’s skin,” she says. “With clay sculpting, it’s about figuring out where the weaknesses are; it’s a cool activity.”   

Ashley Trenner Research Grant Award, $50,000

Donors: Karen and Bob Trenner lost their beloved daughter, Ashley, to melanoma in 2013. By supporting these grants, they say, “We honor Ashley and continue her fight to educate people about skin cancer.” When they’re not traveling the world, the Trenners are based in Bellevue, Washington. 

Awardee: Goran Micevic, MD, PhD, Instructor of Dermatology, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut 

Changing the Odds: Goran Micevic, MD, PhD, is determined to figure out why half of melanoma patients don’t respond well to immunotherapy.

Title of Project: “Elucidating and Enhancing Durable Immune Responses to Melanoma”  

While immunotherapy has made amazing strides in treating advanced melanoma, 50 percent of patients don’t have a great response. “When I sit down with my patients, I tell them it’s a coin toss, only the stakes are extremely high,” he says. The research will attempt to understand the fundamental biology behind why some melanoma patients respond to immunotherapy while others don’t. “And for those who don’t, the question is, ‘What can we do to improve their therapy and prolong their responses?’” 

Dr. Micevic says we know those with a durable response to immunotherapy have a specific type of T cell, but it’s unclear when and how these cells form and whether they exist in patients that don’t have a good response. Using a mouse model, this project will track and isolate the specific cells that recognize melanoma to better understand their function and properties and determine if they can be modified using medications. 

Closing the Gap: “When I started medical school, treatments for melanoma were limited,” says Dr. Micevic. Roughly one in five patients were surviving longer than five years. Now, 50 percent of people survive longer than five years. “That’s tremendous progress.” Still, he says, we’re falling short in delivering therapies that work for the other half of patients. “It’s worthwhile to try to answer the questions that keep me up at night.” 

Blowing Off Steam: When not conducting research, Dr. Micevic plans STEAM projects for his children, ages 4 and 2. (That’s science, technology, engineering, art and math, an education initiative that fosters problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and innovation.) “Last summer, we built a garden, and this past fall, we made a mini playground in our backyard,” he says. “We’re constantly looking for ways to build things. I think a chicken coop will be our next project.”  

To clear his mind, Dr. Micevic hops on his bicycle and takes 25- to-30-mile solo rides. “I find it cleansing to be outside on the bike,” he says, “listening to a podcast or just thinking.” 

Todd Nagel Memorial Research Grant Award, $50,000

Donor: Linda Nagel lost her husband, Todd, to melanoma, when their son, Ryan, was only 3. She raises funds for skin cancer research through the annual Todd Nagel Golf Open in Minnesota. Ryan, now a student at the University of Iowa, carries on his father’s legacy while working in a research lab that is studying melanoma and other cancers. 

Awardee: Yuxuan Miao, PhD, Assistant Professor, The University of Chicago Ben May Department for Cancer Research

Work Hard, Play Hard: When he’s not studying cells in a lab, Yuxan Miao, PhD, turns immunotherapy basics into a game for his 6-year-old daughter.

Title of Project: “Investigate the Roles of Skin Microbiota in Squamous Cell Carcinomas” 

Dr. Miao’s research focuses on tumor-initiating stem cells. “These cells have similar features to other stem cells in our tissue that help with wound repair and drive natural skin regeneration; only the tumor-initiating stem cells can hijack those features and instead drive tumor formations in the skin.” While homing in on the specific molecules and proteins in these tumor cells, Dr. Miao and his team noticed a common theme: bacteria.   

The work is to figure out why bacteria are in these cells and how they are helping tumors grow. The skin’s microbiome is home to beneficial bacteria and harmful, opportunistic bugs. Bad bacteria seem to be beating out the good in these tumors. The goal is to help the beneficial bacteria retake control. Also, identifying key bacteria will help researchers understand which genes are influenced by this bacterial colonization.  

Hitting the Target: “Nonmelanoma skin cancer is one of the most frequently seen cancers in humans, especially in immune-deficient patients,” Dr. Miao says. While immunotherapy has helped many types of cancers, including skin cancers, we still have more to learn. “That’s why we want to identify an approach to help immunocompromised patients and find the new therapies to target their cancer.” 

Teaching it Forward: When Dr. Miao isn’t challenging himself in the lab, he’s challenging his 6-year-old daughter, who seems to have inherited her father’s natural interest in biology and medicine. “We go to science museums together and the Field Museum of Natural History,” he says. And he turns immunology into games for her. “She already has a basic understanding of how a T cell works.” 

Dr. Miao makes time for a different type of fun: soccer! Once a player, now just a dedicated fan, he hasn’t missed a single Manchester United game since 1998.  

To learn more about this program, please visit our Research Grants page 

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