University at Buffalo receives $1.5M grant to develop new therapies for oral cancer

Buffalo, N.Y. — The University at Buffalo announced March 25 that it received a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop new therapies that can help reduce chronic inflammation and immunosuppression in oral cancers.

If successful, the findings could help increase survivorship of oral cancers, said Keith Kirkwood, D.D.S., Ph.D., principal research investigator and UB School of Dental Medicine professor of oral biology, in a news release.

Through the three-year grant, according to the University of Buffalo, the research will center on a type of white blood cell called a macrophage that — after migrating to oral tumors — triggers uncontrolled inflammation, suppresses the body’s immune response and lowers the effectiveness of anticancer therapies.

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.

The researchers aim to reprogram the macrophages by targeting genes that regulate inflammation, Dr. Kirkwood said.

“A change in behavior in the white blood cells within the tumor itself removes the ‘brakes’ in the system, causing more oral cancer growth,” said Dr. 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.”

By lowering inflammation, oral cancers will become more sensitive to new and traditional chemotherapies, he added.

Additional investigators include Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Wesley Hicks Jr., M.D., D.D.S., chair of the Department of Head and Neck/Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery; William Magner, Ph.D., scientist in the Department of Immunology; and Scott Abrams, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Immunology.

According to the University at Buffalo, veterans are two times more likely to develop head and neck cancers than non-veterans. The increased risk may be attributed to higher rates of alcohol and tobacco use among veterans, Dr. Kirkwood said. Nearly 75% of oral cancers are caused by either alcohol or tobacco use, according to outside research.

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