The Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology Cutaneous Biology Program

In the past, academic biomedical research was focused primarily on reductionism – dissecting cellular reactions into their smallest component parts. While this method led to great progress, today’s goals have changed. Now, through what has become known as translational research, investigators are focusing on “translating” or adapting their discoveries so they can be utilized as medical applications in the patient care arena. In addition, more emphasis is now placed on using clinical observations to guide the direction of laboratory-based research. The ultimate goal is to shorten the time from scientific discovery to improved patient care.

overviewThis change in research strategy has paid off, especially in Dermatology. Never before have new dermatologic therapies developed in the research laboratory been applied to the patient setting as rapidly as they are today. We are beginning to understand the molecular basis of major dermatologic problems including psoriasis, acne, atopic dermatitis (eczema); blistering diseases such as epidermolysis bullosa, pemphigus, and pemphigoid; and the major skin malignancies including melanoma, basal and squamous cell carcinoma, and Merkel cell carcinoma. Within the next decade, we expect to apply that understanding to the development of groundbreaking genetic, biochemical, and immunologic therapies.

Below, we describe in more detail three areas of research in our Department: melanoma and melanocyte biology, epithelial biology and non-melanoma skin cancers, and immunology and inflammation, to illustrate the impact research is having on the treatment dermatologic conditions. 

Melanoma and Melanocyte Biology

Researchers and clinicians in the Department are studying all stages of the melanoma disease process, from clinical and genetic factors that predispose patients to the formation of this potentially fatal malignancy, to the early recognition and diagnosis of melanomas using advanced skin imaging modalities, to how melanomas grow and spread from their primary site in the skin, to developing new means to detect and treat advanced melanomas based upon a deeper understanding of their biology.

For decades, NYU has been recognized as one of the foremost clinical melanoma programs in the world. In 2002, the department's physician-scientists working with their Surgical and Medical Oncology colleagues built on this strength to launch a new multidisciplinary, translational research program, the NYU Interdisciplinary Melanoma Cooperative Group (IMCG). The IMCG, led by Dr. Iman Osman, has grown to 23 investigators, representing 11 Departments of the NYU School of Medicine. Its core mission is to: 1) identify risk factors and prognostic markers of melanoma progression; 2) evaluate the biologic heterogeneity of melanoma; and 3) establish combination approaches for treating melanoma that integrate immunotherapeutic, chemotherapeutic and biological therapies. These common scientific interests and goals serve to foster vigorous interactions and collaborations between members of the IMCG, each of whom has a unique area of expertise. The strength of this program stems from NYU’s world-class faculty of clinicians and researchers and its long-established reputation as a premier tertiary referral center for patients requiring specialized treatment for melanoma. Additionally, the IMCG has enrolled more than a thousand patients since 2002, collecting their blood, tissue specimens, and clinical information. These samples and corresponding clinical data provide an unparalleled resource for the study of how to improve melanoma treatment. The progress to date is evident as IMCG researchers have over 100 publications to their credit and active collaborations and prolific research efforts continue to unite them as the front line in the fight against melanoma.

Melanoma is the result when melanocytes, the normal, pigment-producing cells in the skin turn cancerous. Departmental researchers are studying normal melanocytes to better understand the genetic and biochemical factors that control skin pigmentation. Aside from learning more about the basic biology of melanocytes, one of the translational research goals of these studies is to find new treatments for clinical disorders of pigmentation.

Investigators in the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology participating in research related to Melanoma and Melanocyte Biology include:

  • Nina Bhardwaj, M.D., Ph.D.
  • Mayumi Ito, Ph.D.
  • Hideko Kamino, M.D.
  • Alfred W. Kopf, M.D. (emeritus)
  • Prashiela Manga, Ph.D.
  • Seth J. Orlow, M.D., Ph.D.
  • Iman Osman, M.D.
  • Anna Pavlick, D.O.
  • David Polsky, M.D., Ph.D.
  • Jennifer Stein, M.D., Ph.D.

Epithelial Biology and Non-Melanoma Skin Cancers

From the stem cells that supply the skin and hair follicle with a renewable source of cells, to the signals that inform skin as to how to develop, researchers are delving into many basic scientific questions concerning the largest organ in the body. Questions that relate not only to normal skin development, but also to the regeneration of skin in the process of wound healing are under active investigation. In addition, the Center of Excellence initiative is helping us to advance our understanding of non-melanoma skin cancers (NMSC) such as basal cell (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Using the IMCG described above as a model, we are establishing a biorepository of patient tumor specimens and germline DNA linked to a clinical research database. Particular research questions under investigation include the role of the human papillomavirus in the etiology of SCC, and cell-signaling and tumor-stromal interactions in both SCC and BCC. Some of these questions are also relevant to other epithelial cancers such as breast cancer. Researchers are also exploring pharmacologic strategies for the prevention of NMSC, and we will be initiating studies that investigate genetic determinants of risk for these ubiquitous cancers. The fact that the number of NMSC’s, cutaneous lymphomas, and other skin malignancies diagnosed per year far exceeds the total for all other cancers combined in the USA strongly reinforces the need for further research into the causes and mechanisms of these cancers.

Investigators participating in research related to Epithelial Biology and Non-Melanoma Skin Cancers include:

  • Miroslav Blumenberg, Ph.D.
  • John A. Carucci, M.D., Ph.D.
  • Pamela Cowin, Ph.D.
  • Mayumi Ito Ph.D.
  • Vicki Levine, M.D.
  • Cynthia Loomis, M.D., Ph.D.
  • Prashiela Manga, Ph.D.
  • Shane Meehan, M.D.
  • Seth J. Orlow, M.D., Ph.D.
  • David Polsky, M.D., Ph.D.
  • Markus Schober, Ph.D.
  • Nicholas Soter, M.D.
  • Jennifer Stein, M.D., Ph.D.
  • Tung-Tien (Henry) Sun, Ph.D.

Immunology and Inflammation

Immunology research spans both laboratory and clinical studies. We have a very active, and longstanding Dermatopharmacology Unit where we are conducting clinical trials of biologic agents for use in autoimmune skin diseases such as psoriasis. These new therapies are designed to specifically inhibit the key cells and proteins of the immune response that are critical to the disease process, without causing global immune suppression. Our Unit has been involved in several key studies advancing these novel therapies into clinical practice.

Others study autoimmune diseases including the so-called “collagen vascular diseases” like lupus and dermatomyositis, as well as the interactions of the human host with microbes such as the leprosy mycobacterium and the interplay between psoriasis and the skin microbiome.

Departmental researchers are also involved in boosting the immune response against melanoma. Novel vaccines and vaccine adjuvants are under active laboratory and clinical investigation for patients with advanced melanoma. In addition, new blood-based markers are under investigation to measure patients’ responses to melanoma therapies, and to help improve the early detection of recurrent disease.

Investigators participating in research related to Immunology and Inflammation include:

  • Miroslav Blumenberg PhD
  • Nina Bhardwaj, M.D., Ph.D.
  • Andrew Franks, Jr. M.D.
  • William Levis M.D.

Andrea L. Neimann, M.D., M.S.C.E.
Jerome Shupack, M.D.

These are clear examples that highlight the strides we are making toward the treatment, prevention, and cure of dermatologic conditions, diseases and cancers. The Cutaneous Biology Program of the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology has been designed to succeed in building the next generation of leaders in dermatology, reinforcing the pivotal role of research in the specialty, and providing the utmost in care to our patients.