Finding the Connections Across Varied Avenues of Research

MRA’s investment in research and convening power has strengthened collaborations among scientists and physicians from across multiple fields of medical study. As MRA connects the dots and propels the field forward, new opportunities and advancements arise. For example, targeted therapy that capitalizes on specific mutations in patients’ melanoma is a leading example of personalized medicine. And immunotherapy has not only dramatically changed the melanoma treatment landscape, but is now being used to treat nine other cancers and tested in many more.

Yet for some patients, immunotherapy isn’t the answer, and for others, it may be simply one part of a more complex solution. Further study is needed, looking at everything from bio-markers for treatment selection, to ensuring tumors are recognized by the immune system; and from new treatment combinations to understanding ideal sequencing and timing of treatment for each and every patient.

MRA’s scientific investments are both broad and diverse, knowing that the answers may not reside squarely in one field of study. MRA has funded research on 96 different investigational agents to date, and on approaches as varied as artificial intelligence for better detection to radiation for turning a tumor hot. Past research opens new windows of exploration, with each discovery providing new avenues of hope.

One example of this can be seen in research focused on the microbiome. Research supported by MRA and conducted by Dr. Tom Gajewski from 2013 to 2016 further demonstrated that treatment and cancer type alone do not define patient outcomes. Instead, a more complex picture is at play, once again, denoting a need to connect all the dots. With research supported by MRA at the University of Chicago, Dr. Gajewski published seminal articles that helped to explore and define the role of the microbiome in melanoma treatment.


  • a community of microorganisms (such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses) that inhabit a particular environment and especially the collection of microorganisms living in or on the human body
  • the collective genomes of microorganisms inhabiting a particular environment and especially the human body
  • the full genetic complement of bacteria and other organisms at home on your skin, gums, and teeth, in your genital tract, and especially in your gut


Dr. Jennifer Wargo

While Gajewski launched studies demonstrating a role for the gut microbiome in response to immune checkpoint blockade in melanoma mouse models, Dr. Jennifer Wargo of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center studied the gut microbiome in patients and compared those that were responding well to therapy versus the microbiome of people who weren’t responding.

Wargo and team were able to demonstrate that a “favorable” gut microbiome was associated with improved systemic and anti-tumor immune responses, suggesting that the two are linked. “This area of focus is novel and game-changing for cancer treatment, as immune responses are critical to virtually every form of cancer therapy,” says Wargo.

Today, this early area of exploration continues to greatly expand as does MRA’s investment, with two new team awards issued in 2018 looking at the impact of microbiome on treatment, and the impact of diet and mental health on the microbiome.

The implications of this research are numerous and far reaching. For example:

  • Should doctors be profiling the gut microbiome of patients with cancer going into treatment?
  • Should doctors be closely monitoring factors that impact the microbiome in patients (e.g., antibiotic use, diet, probiotic use)?
  • Should there be close monitoring of the gut microbiome in pre-clinical models for cancer therapy?
  • Can the gut microbiome be modulated to enhance therapeutic responses and to abrogate toxicity and, if so, how should this be done?
  • Which diets or probiotics may be helpful and which may be harmful?

Answering these questions, and so many others, necessitates connecting the dots.