Thirty years ago, a person with metastatic melanoma had a 5 to 10 percent chance of long-term survival. Today, estimates of five-year survival range from 40 to 50 percent. This substantial progress is due in large part to recent advances in immunotherapy, which activates the body’s own defenses to attack tumors.

In certain instances, activation may involve disabling the body’s own roadblocks against immune system activity, which are called checkpoints. These natural “brakes” are an essential defense against autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, but checkpoints also can thwart the destruction of harmful tumors. Clinical researchers at Yale Cancer Center are leaders in efforts to develop corrective therapies.

At times, results have been dramatic. Immune checkpoint inhibitors have freed the immune system to shrink tumors drastically and rapidly. The challenge now is to explain why these treatments work in some patients and some cancers, but not others, notes Mario Sznol, M.D., professor of medicine (medical oncology). “For many years, we learned mostly through trial and error,” Sznol says. “Today, despite our growing knowledge of tumor cells and the immune system, we are unable to accurately predict the efficacy of cancer treatments and to tailor them to individual patients.”

Roslyn M. Meyer, Ph.D. ’77, and her husband, Jerome H. Meyer, M.D. ’72, recently committed $2 million to Yale Cancer Center to support advanced scientific research over a span of five years. The goal is to yield discoveries that can be translated quickly into effective melanoma treatments.

“As a survivor of metastatic melanoma, I appreciate the incredible work of scientists and clinicians who are finding new ways to battle cancer,” Roslyn Meyer says. “We hope that funding for Yale researchers can make a difference for the next generation of patients.”

A portion of the gift will establish the Roslyn and Jerome Meyer Awards for Research in Melanoma and Immuno-oncology. Overseen by Sznol, the Meyer Awards will support innovative projects by faculty members aimed at expanding our understanding of the immune response against melanoma, the basic biology of the disease, its link to host immune responses, and methods to improve immune and targeted therapies, including drug delivery.

Each grant will provide a researcher with roughly $75,000 over two years—enough to set the stage for larger scientific investigations. “The Meyer Awards allow our researchers to test new ideas,” says Sznol. “They can subsequently leverage these new data to seek further funds from the National Institutes of Health to take their projects to the next level.”

The balance of the Meyers’ gift will support research by Harriet M. Kluger, M.D., professor of medicine (medical oncology), in the area of brain metastases. When tumor cells spread to the brain, they share traits with cells in the other parts of the body but do not necessarily have the same response to therapies. The blood-brain barrier might prevent some drugs from reaching the brain, and as Kluger points out, the micro-environment in the brain differs from the rest of the body. Kluger and her colleagues hope to make inroads toward treating melanomas that have spread to the brain.

Charles S. Fuchs, M.D., M.P.H., Richard Sackler and Jonathan Sackler Professor of Medicine (Medical Oncology) and director of Yale Cancer Center, says, “Roslyn and Jerome Meyer have thought strategically about how to fund research leading to the next big breakthrough in cancer treatment. In a time of reduced federal funding, this type of support for early-stage research is more important than ever. Their gift has the potential to save lives.”