MRA’s Young Investigator Program: Bringing New Talent & Novel Ideas for Research Forward

By Pamela Goldsmith, MRA Director of Communications | 28 February 2017 | Events, Science

2017Retreat YoungInvest

Since its founding in 2007, MRA knew the acceleration of treatment for melanoma would not only require support of top senior researchers from around the world, but that we needed to pull in early career scientists who could bring other novel ideas to melanoma research with the potential of a full career ahead of them to continue shaping the field. Toward that end, with the first round of grants issued by MRA, the organization committed to supporting Young Investigator Awards (YIA). YIAs are typically for three years and provide funding at $75,000 per year — $225,000 in total. The awards are earmarked for scientists within the first four years of their first full time academic faculty appointment. A mentorship commitment from a senior investigator is required to help guide the young investigator. In addition to standalone YIAs, Team Science Awards also require the participation of a Young Investigator as part of the team. As of the end of 2016, MRA issued 62 Young Investigator Awards, committing over $12 million in total to this effort. Including those Young Investigators on Team Science Awards, a total of 90 Young Investigators have been supported for melanoma research.

In February, at the Ninth Annual MRA Scientific Retreat, a Young Investigator Breakfast brought together scores of past and current MRA Young Investigators. As part of its commitment to build the field, MRA undertakes a program at each of these breakfasts. This year, investigators were treated to a panel of senior editors from leading scientific journals, including Nature, Science Translational Medicine, Clinical Cancer Research and Cell to provide insights and tips on getting published, a critical step to advancing the field. Editors included Victoria Aranda, Senior Editor, Nature; Keith Flaherty, Professor, Medicine, Harvard Medical School Editor-in-Chief, Clinical Cancer Research; Priscilla Kelly, Associate Editor, Science; and João Monteiro, Scientific Editor, Cell.

Following the breakfast I connected with one of MRA’s first young investigators, Dr. Timothy Bullock, University of Virginia. His MRA-funded research in the 2008 inaugural class of Young Investigators looked at Targeting CD4+T cells for Melanoma Immunotherapy. This first award was just the start of a relationship between MRA and Dr. Bullock that not only yielded results for the field, but has helped to advance Dr. Bullock’s career. He was most recently funded in 2015 for an Established Investigator Award on Enhancing Immune Therapy for Brain Metastases with Focused Ultrasound. The following interview provides both an update on current research being conducted by Dr. Bullock and his take on the YIA breakfast.

As an MRA-funded Investigator, can you please describe specifically what that funding was for — elaborating on the corresponding research?

I am fortunate to be a long-term recipient of MRA funding.  In our most current support, we are looking at whether we can use Focused Ultrasound to improve immune-modulatory antibody and T cell penetrance and function in melanoma brain metastases.  Focused ultrasound with micro-bubbles has been shown to help open the blood-brain and blood-tumor barrier, which is often thought to preclude immune cell access, and can even cause damage to tumors directly.  We are testing, in mouse models, whether this could provide an avenue to help patients with brain metastases — which is a major unmet clinical need.

Can you please speak about what you are currently focused on in your research?

As part of this ongoing project, we are beginning to understand the substantial differences about how the immune system responds to the same tumor growing in the brain compared to a peripheral site (like a skin metastasis).  There are substantial differences, which we will need to overcome in order to promote anti-tumor immunity in this site — which is known for its immunosuppressive nature.  We are also learning how different modalities of ultrasound are perceived by brain metastases, and how they respond to the damage induced by sound waves.

Can you please elaborate on how that funding opportunity has impacted your career? 

This support is critical for generating data that moves us beyond a provocative hypothesis to a rigorous examination of a clinical problem that will be supported by federal funding.  It also provides the opportunity to develop proof-of-principle preclinical data that will promote new clinical trials intended to help this subset of patients.

Can you share your thoughts on the editor panel presented at this year's breakfast at the MRA Annual Scientific Retreat?

A major catalyst for the development of careers of Young Investigators is learning how to get their exciting research promoted to top tier journals.  These journals have rigorous review processes that will help a Young Investigator see the strengths and weaknesses of their studies.  If they are successful, their research programs will receive attention and support. By learning what type of research these top tier journals are interested in, and having the opportunity to engage and network with the editors of these journals, it is a great way to support our Young Investigators as they establish their independent research programs.  It was a thoughtful and well-received program.


Research scientific journals team science awards brain metastasis Young Investigators