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
"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. Julie Penne
Office of Public Affairs
M.D. Anderson Cancer Center
Mr. Bill Gordon
Office of Public Affairs
University of California, San Francisco