Skin Cancer :: Major Gift to Rockefeller U. to Help Combat Most Serious Skin Cancers

The Paul Milstein family has donated $5.5 million to create the Milstein Medical Research Program at Rockefeller University. The initial research efforts will be in the area of skin cancer and will be led by Dr. James G. Krueger, D. Martin Carter Professor and head of the Laboratory for Investigative Dermatology at Rockefeller.

At a time when health care statistics continue to report a continuing rise in skin cancer cases, making it the most common of all cancers, the new program will focus on improving understanding of the biology and progression of human melanoma, with an emphasis on developing diagnostic techniques that will enable clinicians to identify appropriate treatments.

“Howard Milstein’s generous gift will enable Rockefeller University physician-scientists to better understand the basic biology of melanoma in people, a crucial step in the fight against this devastating disease,” says Rockefeller University President Paul Nurse. “We are enormously grateful to Mr. Milstein for helping the university launch a major new initiative in melanoma aimed at finding more effective treatments.”

Speaking on behalf of the family of Paul Milstein, Howard Milstein, who is also Chairman of the American Skin Association, says: “Last year, more than 60,000 people in the United States learned they have melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer. Early detection can cure many of these people. Dr. Krueger’s research will combine imaginative basic science with experienced patient-oriented studies in a new program devoted to developing a fundamental understanding of tumor progression in melanoma, which will lead to more effective approaches in diagnosing and treating this disease.”

Melanoma, which accounts for three-quarters of all skin cancer deaths, occurs when pigment cells in the skin, called melanocytes, become malignant. Current treatments for melanoma include surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation therapy or a combination of these treatments. Treatment success depends on many factors, including the patient’s general health and whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or other organs. If caught early, melanoma can be cured.

A central aim of the Milstein Medical Research Program is to create a new medical practice of skin oncology, in which dermatologists will take a more central role in the long-term management of patients with melanoma and serve as the primary caregivers, creating a new model for actual practices. In addition to administering standard or routine therapies for advanced disease, Krueger envisions dermatologists performing clinical studies of new therapeutics in melanoma patients.

Research in the Milstein Medical Research Program will focus on three long-term goals:

* creating a clinical “best standard” for grading pigmented lesions by improving our understanding of the clinical and cellular characteristics of melanoma;

* improving diagnostic and prognostic information about melanoma through an altered approach to pathologic assessment that would include the ability to do detailed genomic or marker studies on all qualifying lesions; and

* creating an improved understanding of disease pathogenesis at a molecular level such that therapeutic targets for treatment of early-stage or advanced disease can be selected in the best possible fashion.

“Melanoma is perhaps the most important disease treated by dermatologists, especially as early recognition and surgical excision may be curative,” says Krueger. “It is our intention to get a much deeper understanding of disease pathogenesis, including disease genomics, and to use this information in the very near future to begin to engineer new therapies for melanoma.”

Krueger’s laboratory is based in The Rockefeller University Hospital, the largest private research hospital in the United States. The nation’s first hospital devoted to clinical research, it served as the model for the National Institutes of Health’s 400 bed Clinical Research Center in Bethesda, Md. Krueger and his colleagues have been widely influential in the scientific study of skin diseases. One area in which they have made major contributions is psoriasis, one of the few common diseases for which no readily accessible animal model has been developed. His research on psoriasis has been done with biological material obtained from patients, many of whom have been under his care at The Rockefeller University Hospital.

Krueger and his colleagues have also used the Hospital’s clinical and scientific resources to investigate the causes of skin cancer. In a major study reported in April 2006, they used gene arrays (also called DNA chips) to pinpoint several genes that provide a molecular “signature” of tumor cells collected from patients with squamous cell carcinoma. Through genetic analysis, the scientists gained insight into biological pathways that may play a role in initiating and/or maintaining a specific malignant state.

Krueger also serves as medical director of the Hospital and is co-director, with Physician-in-Chief Barry S. Coller, of the Center for Clinical and Translational Science at Rockefeller, recently established with one of the first Clinical and Translational Science Awards from NIH.

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