Driving melanoma research forward
An interview with Dr. Nageatte Ibrahim, vice president, clinical research
April 13, 2021
If you ran into Dr. Nageatte Ibrahim hiking up a mountain path, you would probably catch her with a ready smile for a fellow hiker and a look of fierce determination to reach the summit. She might even be carrying her camera to capture a hidden wonder of nature that other travelers may have missed.
What you probably wouldn’t know is that every day, Dr. Ibrahim has been bringing that same tenacity to her work as a clinician and researcher at Merck. She has focused on climbing a different mountain – advancing melanoma research – on behalf of patients and families she’s met along the way.
We asked Dr. Ibrahim to reflect on the progress that has been made in cancer research and share why she’s optimistic about the future.
Here’s her perspective on fighting cancer from the scientific frontline.
What brought you into the field of melanoma research?
When I first started practicing, I was deeply moved by the courage of my patients, many of whom were young women like myself who found themselves battling melanoma. I formed deep connections with my patients. At the time, we didn’t have many options to offer, and it was heartbreaking to watch this cancer steal their lives too soon. I decided I was going to do everything I could to help, so I transitioned into clinical research where I could focus full time on exploring new ways to approach melanoma.
How has the melanoma landscape changed since you first started practicing?
I am thrilled to say that we’ve made significant progress. When I first started taking care of patients with melanoma, there wasn’t a lot of hope, particularly for those with advanced disease. Today, it’s very different. There has been an explosion of science. It’s incredibly rewarding to see people with melanoma, and their families, have more options.
Our improved understanding of tumor biology has also played an important role in recent progress. It really takes having a detective mindset to explore the tumor, its genetics and microenvironment (the normal cells, molecules and blood vessels that surround and feed a tumor). Looking at melanoma from different perspectives has helped to open new avenues of research.
Can you explain more about the science behind this research?
A tumor doesn’t live in isolation. It sends signals to help it grow. We’re looking at how we can impact these signals in a tumor’s microenvironment. At the same time, we’re studying the role of the microbiome – all the microorganisms that live in your gut – as some studies have indicated that people with a more diverse microbiome respond differently to treatment. We’re not sure if the microbiome is acting on the tumor, the immune system or both, but it’s an interesting area of study.
What areas of melanoma research are you most excited about right now?
I’m excited by the potential to find answers to research questions more quickly and efficiently. We’re exploring research in the neo-adjuvant setting (before the tumor is surgically removed) to gain real-time insights into a patient’s response, as well as studying molecular changes in the tumor. This enables rapid detection of an efficacy signal, so we can more quickly advance the research.
What makes you hopeful about the future of melanoma research?
In a relatively short timeframe, I’ve seen incredible progress in helping people with melanoma, and I’m proud to be part of a talented and dedicated team of oncology researchers at Merck that is continuing to drive this research forward. We have a history of successfully collaborating with leading academic centers, industry partners and regulators to find new approaches, and we have a rich trove of data to guide us in the research ahead. I’m confident that more innovative advances are on the horizon to help people and their families facing melanoma, and I’m honored to keep climbing this mountain on their behalf.