Furthering cancer research with the Melanoma Research Alliance

T.J. and Alise Reicin, Merck’s team lead for their PD-1 drug lambrolizumab.

There’s helping your favorite charity, then there’s inspiring a game-changing foundation that is saving lives.  Tuesday night in Manhattan, I experienced a lot of each while attending the Melanoma Research Alliance’s benefit dinner and auction fundraiser at Sotheby’s.  Jeff Rowbottom, an MRA board member and melanoma survivor, invited me up to the event to meet some of the people associated with the MRA, and the night and the organization were certainly more impactful than I imagined.

The MRA was founded by Debra and Leon Black in 2007, after Debra’s scare with Stage II melanoma.  The organization’s mission is to accelerate the pace of scientific discovery and its translation in order to eliminate suffering and death due to melanoma. They fulfill this mission by funding research and insisting that researchers collaborate and share their findings with other scientists in the alliance. 

lBeing in that room was sort of a 360 degree view on the lifecycle of a cancer treatment.  The cycle starts with the donors – they contribute funds to make research happen, and they certainly showed up Tuesday night.  Life-long melanoma researchers like Dr. Jeff Weber (my oncologist from the first trial at Moffitt) initiate new concepts in cancer research, and the next generation of oncology experts like Dr. Michael Postow of Sloan-Kittering and Dr. Todd Ridky of UPenn lead trials being funded by grants from the MRA (see, an advantage of inviting me places; you sit at my table, you get a mention in the blog!)  The MRA itself employs a leadership team to keep things running and ensuring that every dollar raised goes directly to melanoma research - the Blacks underwrite the entire operating budget of the organization.

The pharmaceutical companies were represented as well; I met the Merck team lead for the MK-3475 (aka lambrolizumab) team.  She enjoyed hearing my story; as she put it, sometimes they need something to keep the team going during long nights at the office, and a first-hand testimony does just that.  Hey Merck guys, here’s your motivation – a 38-year-old husband and father of two pretty adorable kids needs to stick around to be a parent and a spouse for my family.  What you are doing is making that a reality; you are keeping me alive, so don’t give up now.  My life, and many others, depends on those late nights and weekends.  Stick that one up above the water cooler if you need any renewed vigor for your work.  Oh yea – ask for a raise too, you deserve it (figure I would try to motivate any way I can!)

Then there are the patients.  Leon and Debra weren’t the only people in there with skin in the game, so to speak - ha, I’m hysterical.  At our table alone, there was a former patient, a current one (hey, that’s me) and a future one, who had been diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma just three weeks prior.  Sort of the past, present, and future of PD-1, personified.  The two doctors were there, sharing insight and experiences from the other side of the lab coat.  A benefactor and his wife told stories of their buddy Rusty, and sitting by his side through treatments, watching melanoma take a physical and mental toll on him – and then happily celebrating his 50th birthday party, with his melanoma under control.  Just in our little corner of the room, we had a cross-section of life in the world of metastatic melanoma.

The event itself was pretty incredible; it was sort of like your neighborhood school or church’s fundraiser, if your church held their event at one of the premier auction houses in the world and had things like a weekend yacht trip in the Mediterranean on the docket.  Needless to say, the bidding started several notches above my price point and went up from there.  The itch on my nose had to wait until the auction was over, just in case scratching got confused for a five-figure bid on a ski weekend in the Rockies.  The generosity of the donors raised upwards of $2.5 million dollars in about 20 minutes, just on auction items and sponsorship of young researchers.  For those of us not involved in finance, throwing around that many zeroes can be dizzying.

I am sure some attendees were there to support the charity without much of a personal stake in it – in the financial capital of the world, it happens.  Us nameless melanoma patients thank you for your support, anyways; contributions are needed, no matter what the motivation of the donor may be.  Still, you got the feeling that nearly everyone there was invested in this cause personally just as much as financially.  Great things happen when motivated individuals come together and work towards a common goal.  Bright medical minds combined with successful financial ones certainly brought an air of success to the event even before the auction began. 

It is amazing to see that much brainpower at work - the sheer intelligence level in the room was a bit intimidating.  Sure, we have a fair share of wealth and success in Fort Lauderdale, but a significant majority of that is “leisure” – we see the rewards of hard work, with vacation homes and yachts and all the other South Florida amenities.  Watching high-level commerce in action gave a glimpse into that upper-crust world in its natural habitat – men and women at the top of their respective professions coming together to push past bureaucracy and red tape to make things happen.  It truly is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the (very significant) parts.

While there’s no way to tell for sure, there is a certainly a very good chance money raised last night will trickle down to new/ better treatments for cancer patients.  MRA grants have funded both TIL and PD-1 research, so although this was my first chance to meet the organization, you could say I am fairly familiar with their work.  It is kind of crazy to think that only four years ago, the stuff that is keeping me alive today was just an idea on a grant proposal needing financing to become a reality.    

This unexpected milestone will be one to remember, and to share with others as motivation.  When I spoke briefly with Dr. Weber, there was a bit of surprise in his voice.  Had you told him (and I) in March that we would meet up at a million-dollar fundraising gala in Manhattan in eight months, I doubt either of us would envision that happening.  Yet there I was, interrupting his after-dinner conversation with former U.S. Senator Connie Mack (I’m all tact), just to say, “Guess what?  I’m feeling good – and on my way to being one of your former patient success stories”.   After seeing events like this, I can’t help but feel more confident that my recovery will be durable – and be repeated across many other patients who are, or will be, in my shoes.

Thanks to Jeff Rowbottom, Phil Dunn, and the MRA team for allowing me to be part of a special night.

T.J. Sharpe shares his fight against Stage 4 Melanoma in the Patient #1 blog. Read more »