UB awarded $1.5 million to reprogram white blood cells in fight against oral cancer
Veterans two times more likely to develop head and neck cancers than non-veterans
BUFFALO, N.Y. – The University at Buffalo has received a $1.5 million grant from the United States Department of Defense to develop new therapies that help reduce chronic inflammation and immunosuppression in oral cancers.
Through the three-year grant, the research will center on a type of white blood cell called a macrophage that – after migrating to oral tumors – triggers uncontrolled inflammation, which suppresses the body’s immune response and lowers the effectiveness of anticancer therapies.
The researchers aim to reprogram the macrophages by targeting genes that regulate inflammation. By lowering inflammation, oral cancers will become more sensitive to new and traditional chemotherapies.
If successful, the findings could help increase survivorship of oral cancers, which claim the life of roughly half of all oral cancer patients within five years, according to Keith Kirkwood, DDS, PhD, principal investigator, Centennial Endowed Chair and professor of oral biology in the UB School of Dental Medicine.
“A change in behavior in the white blood cells within the tumor itself removes the ‘brakes’ in the system, causing more oral cancer growth,” says Kirkwood, also associate dean for innovation and technology transfer in the UB School of Dental Medicine. “We propose to reprogram the white blood cells to regain control of the brakes.”
Additional investigators from Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center include Wesley Hicks Jr., MD, DDS, chair of the Department of Head and Neck/Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery; William Magner, PhD, scientist in the Department of Immunology; and Scott Abrams, PhD, professor in the Department of Immunology.
The research will focus on oral squamous cell carcinoma, the most common type of oral cancer. Found in the lips, mouth or throat, oral cancers can affect the ability to eat and speak, and may cause permanent disfigurement of the face.
Veterans are two times more likely to develop head and neck cancers than non-veterans, says Kirkwood. The increased risk may be attributed to higher rates of alcohol and tobacco use among veterans, he says. Nearly 75% of oral cancers are caused by either alcohol or tobacco use, according to outside research.