University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute to open Melanoma Tissue Bank |

University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute to open Melanoma Tissue Bank

From autism to prostate cancer, researchers rely on specialized banks of donated human tissue to explore how diseases attack the body and what might stop them.

But melanoma specialists worry that the absence of a national tissue bank of cancerous skin is slowing new treatments, even as the disease has become the fastest-growing cancer in new diagnoses nationwide.

The University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute will begin filling the research gap next year, when Pitt is expected to open the first of four branches of the new Melanoma Tissue Bank, organizers confirmed Tuesday.

“It’s hard to underestimate how important the access to these tissues will be in research of the future,” said Dr. John Kirkwood, the Pitt skin cancer program director and a longtime tissue bank advocate, who will help oversee the Pittsburgh branch.

Other branches are planned at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, Northwestern University near Chicago and Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, although researchers have yet to announce opening dates.

Pitt and the three other institutions formed a consortium to establish the first national tissue bank for melanoma. Smaller collections exist in hospitals and research institutions based on cases they treat.

Advocacy groups in Illinois and California are helping to raise more than $3 million for the consortium.

Kirkwood said every branch hopes to collect each year from patients who give their consent at least 50 melanoma tissue samples, tiny frozen slivers ranging from the size of a No. 2 pencil eraser to a fraction of that.

Branch directors will make tissue and tissue data available for peer-reviewed research projects around the world, including at the host institutions. Pitt researchers are still sorting out where to house the local branch, which Kirkwood said will need several new employees.

For the 600 melanoma patients treated annually in the Pitt skin cancer program, researchers said proximity to the bank should mean easy access to cutting-edge treatments developed at the school.

About one in 50 people in the United States will develop melanoma, up from 1 in 500 about 25 years ago, Kirkwood said.

“Even though we’ve raised money for the whole bank, our focus right now is getting (Dr.) Kirkwood up and running,” said Susan Steel, 56, a melanoma survivor who founded the Skin of Steel nonprofit outside Chicago. The group partnered several years ago with Aim at Melanoma, a San Francisco research organization, to raise money and plan the tissue bank.

Steel said the Pittsburgh branch will open first because Kirkwood, who has studied melanoma for more than three decades, is a research leader whose work commands international attention.

Publicity surrounding the local bank should bring a brighter spotlight to melanoma and early detection in Western Pennsylvania, said Julie Hudak, 46, of Squirrel Hill, whose husband, Daniel, died of melanoma in 2010.

“If it’s caught too late, there’s a chance of it being in the blood, and the survival rate is grim,” Hudak said.

She will join Kirkwood and other tissue bank supporters to discuss the plans at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Babcock Mansion, 5135 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside. The meeting is open to the public.

Organizers ask that expected attendees register in advance with Alison Mankowski at 312-501-5530 or [email protected] . They are not charging an admission fee.

Kirkwood said the bank should accelerate progress unfolding in melanoma research, which until 2011 had generated three government-approved treatments for the disease. Six more have emerged since then.

“We have made unbelievable, truly incredible strides in the past several years,” Kirkwood said.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or [email protected]

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