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The Cutting Edge - A Platform for Elevating Melanoma Clinical Research

Cutting Edge Fall 2012

A Platform for Elevating Melanoma Clinical Research

Date: December 4, 2012


Standing, from left: John Mavropoulos, dermatology; Paul Manson, plastic surgery; Julie Lange, surgery; Suzanne Topalian, surgery; Anthony Tufaro, plastic surgery. Seated, from left, Timothy Wang, dermatology; Cathy Tran, dermatology; Evan Lipson, oncolog
Standing, from left: John Mavropoulos, dermatology; Paul Manson, plastic surgery; Julie Lange, surgery; Suzanne Topalian, surgery; Anthony Tufaro, plastic surgery. Seated, from left, Timothy Wang, dermatology; Cathy Tran, dermatology; Evan Lipson, oncology; Max Fischer, dermatopathology.

Ask any Johns Hopkins Hospital clinician involved in research about his or her work, and you’ll almost certainly hear that today is the most exciting time to probe his or her specialty. But few would be as insistent as members of Hopkins’ melanoma program, whose enthusiasm about research is palpable. 

Indeed, throughout the program, research plays a prominent role, right down to its impact on clinical care. Across the group—which resides within the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center and includes surgeons as well as experts from dermatology, medical oncology and nursing, among other disciplines—faculty research efforts have become increasingly elevated and promising. Along with colleagues from other oncology specialties and other institutions, Melanoma Program Director Suzanne Topalian recently published a high-profile study in the New England Journal of Medicine that showed encouraging results from an experimental drug used to treat patients with melanoma (along with lung and kidney cancer). Several ongoing clinical trials are also available to patients.

Meanwhile, staff members meet regularly to discuss patient cases and to brainstorm about treatments and care. “The Hopkins Melanoma Program is a perfect example of clinical teamwork,” says Topalian, citing the long list of specialists who confer on patients. “Our program provides a platform for everyone in the group to work together, not only in patient care, but also in clinical trials designed to develop better treatments.”

 A joint effort between the Department of Surgery and the Department of Oncology, the program was launched in 2006, based on a shared vision by Surgery Chief Julie Freischlag and former cancer center Director Martin Abeloff. “We already had outstanding clinicians in various subspecialties related to melanoma,” Topalian says. “We wanted to build on the hospital’s existing expertise and resources.”

They also sought to elevate the role of research within the program. “Hopkins’ melanoma clinical specialists were already providing the best state-of-the-art care to our patients,” Topalian continues. “But there wasn’t as strong a research component.”

Now, members of the program who are active in research hold monthly meetings to discuss ongoing studies and potential research projects. “We’re starting to see the development of agents with real activity and promise in melanoma,” says Surgical Director Julie Lange. “And 10 years from now, we’ll have better treatments than we do today.”

With melanoma rates on the rise, chances are those treatments will be needed. Today, the melanoma team sees an estimated 400 new patients every year. Across the nation, about 70,000 patients are diagnosed each year. About 9,000 of those cases turn out to be fatal. The vast majority, however, are in the early stages and can be treated surgically, without any chemotherapy or radiation, says Topalian. “Surgery plays a major role in the management of melanoma,” she explains. “But to manage cases that have gone beyond a surgical approach, we need a multidisciplinary team of specialists.”

That teamwork is a big draw for those who seek care at Hopkins, says Lange. “I recently saw a patient from Virginia who had originally received care at a local hospital, but who came here because of how we work together across specialties,” she says. That collaboration instills confidence about the level of care for patients, she adds, while stimulating more research to advance the science.

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