Bardhan awarded prestigious career development grant for melanoma research

A chemical and biomolecular engineering professor has received a prestigious Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP) Career Development Award to develop an innovative multi-modal imaging platform for melanoma diagnosis and treatment evaluation.

Assistant Professor Rizia Bardhan will use novel immunoactive gold nanostructures (IGNs) in conjunction with PET scanning and Raman spectroscopy to assess tumor immunomarkers – both to enable patient selection for immunotherapy and to spare other melanoma patients from toxic side effects and costly interventions that will be ineffective for them.

“For them” is a critical piece of the puzzle and another step toward personalized, patient-tailored cancer treatment. Melanoma is a highly aggressive form of skin cancer that rapidly metastasizes to distant organs, but 65-75 percent of patients don’t respond to a common immunotherapy regimen because existing methods fail to provide an accurate assessment of a biomarker (PD-L1) in such tumors.

This CDMRP award will fund research into a quicker, more accurate prediction tool to tailor these immunotherapies to patients who will respond to the treatment and determine an alternative plan for non-responders.

Rizia Bardhan

Biopsy analysis has remained the gold standard for predicting tumor status with respect to this biomarker but levels vary greatly from patient to patient and, within the same patient, from primary melanoma tumors to distant metastases, Bardhan said.

Plus, the procedures are expensive and invasive and mostly qualitative, she said.

“The project aims to fill a compelling, unmet need for noninvasive diagnostic and prognostic tools to accurately predict the PD-L1 status in melanoma and allow enhanced recognition of other immunomarkers to better tailor immunotherapies for each patient,” she said.

When successful, cancer immunotherapies that inhibit checkpoint receptors show better patient outcomes and are safer than chemotherapy and radiation.

“ImmunoPET-Raman will benefit both early stage, and metastatic melanoma patient in locating the macroscopic distribution of tumors in deep tissue followed by rapid molecular identification of immunomarkers in the tumors.”

The rates of melanoma have been rising for the last 30 years, and the American Cancer Society estimates that about 91,270 new melanomas will be diagnosed in the United States this year, 60 percent of them in men. About 9,320 people are expected to die of melanoma this year – 5,990 men and 3,330 women.

Melanoma is of particular interest to the CDMRP because it disproportionately affects military personnel and veterans, who are outdoors much of the time. In a recent study of 211 military personnel, most reported that the face, neck, and arms were unprotected at least 70 percent of the time. Veterans diagnosed with pathologic stage III and stage IV melanoma have a median survival time of less than a year, in large part because there is no fast, accurate predictor of melanoma at an early, localized stage, Bardhan said.

“A CT scan cannot identify micrometastasis due to poor resolution,” she said.

Bardhan credits a team of mentors for contributing to the success of her work and the CDMRP grant application. Among them is her designated mentor Ingram Professor of Cancer Research Ann Richmond. Co-mentors include Orrin H. Ingram Professor of Biomedical Engineering Anita Mahadevan-Jansen; Ingram Professor of Cancer Research and Vanderbilt Ingram Cancer Center Director of Cancer Imaging Research Charles Manning; and Douglas Johnson, assistant professor of medicine and clinical director of the VICC melanoma research program.

Bardhan joined the School of Engineering faculty in 2012 after a postdoctoral fellowship at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

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