NIH Press Release
National Institute of Dental Research

Wednesday, Oct. 2, 1996
5:00 PM Eastern Time

Susan Johnson
Jody Dove
(301) 402-1663

NIH Funds Four Oral Cancer Research Centers

Dr. Harold Slavkin, director of the National Institute of Dental Research, today announced that the NIDR, together with the National Cancer Institute, is stepping up the battle against oral cancer by funding centers for research that will investigate how oral cancer is triggered and what can be done to reduce its devastating effects. The four center grants, which total $2.8 million this year and will provide additional funds over a 5-year grant period, were awarded to the University of Alabama at Birmingham; the University of California, San Francisco; the University of Chicago and Northwestern University; and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas. All but the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center grant are co-funded by the National Cancer Institute.

The need for the centers is underscored by the fact that survival rates for oral cancer have not improved significantly over the past 30 years. Oral cancer claims the life of one American every hour. Thirty thousand Americans are diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal (throat) cancer annually; only half survive more than five years.

Oral cancer usually occurs in people over age 40, but can develop at any age. It is twice as common in men as in women, and occurs more frequently in African Americans than in whites.

The major risk factors for oral cancer are tobacco use, alcohol use, and--in the case of lip cancer--prolonged exposure to sunlight. "Oral cancer is a classic example of a disease that reflects the interaction of behavior, environment, and molecular genetics," explained Dr. Slavkin. "Our goal is to reduce the behavioral and environmental risk factors for oral cancer, while we tackle what can be done at the molecular and genetic level to prevent or reverse the cancer process."

The new oral cancer research centers will take a multidisciplinary approach, including not only basic research, but also clinical investigations and rehabilitation to help patients return to normal activities. One of the projects will look at the effect of nutrition on the development of oral tumors. Another will focus on the role of viruses such as the human papillomavirus in causing oral cancer. Investigators will study the genetic basis for tumor growth, as well as identify markers for early diagnosis. Because oral cancer is complicated by the ability of cancerous cells to invade surrounding tissues and metastasize to distant sites in the body, the researchers also will explore the factors controlling this process at the molecular level.

The newly funded centers aim to develop improved treatments for oral cancer. Currently, the available treatments are surgery, radiation therapy, or in many cases, a combination of the two. Some patients also receive chemotherapy. Yet these treatments can have devastating effects. Disfigurement may result from the necessary surgery or radiation, and patients may experience long-term pain, dry mouth, and nerve dysfunctions that affect speech, chewing, swallowing, and taste perception.

"We need to move on to so-called ‘smart’ therapeutics," said Dr. Slavkin. "We need approaches that will not destroy healthy bone and salivary gland tissue adjacent to the cancer, but will enable us to replace defective genes or insert a ‘suicide’ gene to make malignant cells self-destruct."

The National Institute of Dental Research and the National Cancer Institute are part of the Federal government’s National Institutes of Health, located in Bethesda, Maryland.

For additional information about the individual oral cancer research centers, contact:

Ms. Laura Mansfield
Office of Media Relations
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Telephone: 205/934-3884

Ms. Julie Penne
Office of Public Affairs
M.D. Anderson Cancer Center
Telephone: 713/792-0655

Mr. John Easton
Office of Public Relations
University of Chicago
Telephone: 312/702-6241

Mr. Bill Gordon
Office of Public Affairs
University of California, San Francisco
Telephone: 415/476-2557