Who’s Partnering with Industry to Crush Melanoma?

The Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA) last week made headlines by announcing another $8 million in grants, pushing their to-date total for 2014 to more than $11 million, shattering records set by the already ambitious organization. Founded in 2007 by Broadway producer Debra Black and her husband Leon, CEO of Apollo Management, LP, the MRA has had a meteoric rise to prominence. They’ve already given away $60 million since their inception, and show no signs of slowing down.

Quite the opposite, in fact. The MRA has a unique funding structure, thanks in part to its incredibly well-connected progenitors. In addition to the Blacks’ generous support, which pays all of the MRA’s operating expenses, the foundation is a fundraising rockstar, throwing big galas serving bite-size ice cream sandwiches and canapés, enticing their circle of Wall Street wheelers and dealers to leverage their financial clout to fight melanoma.

It’s a good cause, after all: the most deadly form of skin cancer, melanoma will kill nearly 10,000 Americans in 2014. And the MRA is going after the disease with as much smart science, and as many bucks behind it, as it can swing.

This latest round of grants, announced last week, awards 34 scientists at 19 different academic institutions, seeking to reward collaborative projects and the sorts of breakthroughs that can advance the search for new and better cancer drugs.

The key to getting MRA is understanding exactly what they mean when they say “collaborative.” Much of their mission involves bringing corporate interests into the realm of philanthropy, as their Academic-Industry Partnership Awards, and the players from GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and Bristol-Myers Squibb who sit on their board and advisory councils will attest. Indeed, the $8 million coming from MRA is nearly matched by $7.5 million coming from corporate allies, research institutions, and individuals -- enabling MRA to have a much bigger reach than even its own sizable investments would allow.

For an example of how this sort of alliance influences the MRA’s grantmaking approach, look no further than Cincinnati University’s Yuhang Zhang, PhD, who just received $60,000 from one of MRA’s Young Investigator Awards. Zhang’s work researches the roles and functions of fibroblasts in melanoma stroma, regulating the expression of a protein called beta-catenin. If his work is successful, it could reveal new realms for drug development: a beta-catenin regulator drug, for example, or something that influences fibroblast structure.

It's an interesting situation. On one hand, drug company money undoubtedly benefits the MRA, giving them deeper pockets and a well-defined direction. On the other hand, these drug companies have a huge stake in what drugs become popular for fighting melanoma given the huge amounts of money spent annually on drugs to treat melanoma. Getting their hands into this kind of "philanthropy" and "research" may in reality do more to further their corporate bottom lines than it would initially seem.