$8.1 Million Grant to Investigate HPV in Head and Neck Cancer

Dentistry Today


Head and neck cancer is the sixth most common cancer in the world, with about 600,000 new cases each year and nearly half of all patients dying within 5 years of diagnosis, reports the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. But a multimillion-dollar grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) aims to arrest those grim figures. 

Nisha D’Silva, BDS, MSD, PhD, of the University of Michigan will use an 8-year, $8.1 million Sustaining Outstanding Achievement in Research (SOAR) Award to investigate the molecular pathways that control the spread and recurrence of head and neck cancer, with a goal of identifying which patients will best respond to existing treatments as well as developing new strategies. 

The SOAR Awards are designed to provide long-term support for NIDCR-funded investigators in mid-career with outstanding records of research productivity, mentorship, and professional service to the research community. Its longer base of grant support is designed to give researchers more freedom to perform high-risk, high-reward, groundbreaking work. 

D’Silva is the Donald Kerr Collegiate Professor of Oral Pathology and Professor of Dentistry. She also is associate chair of the Department of Periodontics and Oral Medicine. She is professor of pathology at the University of Michigan Medical School and a member of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center as well.

“It is truly exciting news that a clinician and scientist as accomplished as Dr. D’Silva will now have extended funding to allow her to focus on finding answers to some of the toughest cancer questions we have,” said Laurie McCauley, DDS, MS, PhD, dean of the School of Dentistry. “The prestigious SOAR grant speaks volumes about how the NIDCR views Dr. D’Silva’s research track record and her potential moving forward.”

The increasing incidence of head and neck cancer that tests positive for the HPV16 strain of the human papillomavirus (HPV) in the United States underscores the importance of this area of study, according to the university.

“The focus of our research program is invasion because this is a defining feature of head and neck cancer,” said D’Silva. “Invasion is important for the spread of head and neck cancer, but unfortunately there are no strategies that effectively target invasion. This knowledge gap is due to limited progress in identifying and understanding the underlying mechanisms that control invasion.”

D’Silva, who has published more than 70 scientific papers and has been recognized with other professional awards, attributes her success to the strong support and emphasis on research at the School of Dentistry and the collaborative environment at the University of Michigan.  

“My research has been enhanced through interdisciplinary collaborations with great colleagues from several schools at the university,” she said.

D’Silva is one of 4 researchers honored by the 2017 SOAR Awards. She is joined by Samantha Brugmann, PhD, of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, studying craniofacial malformations; Gage Crump, PhD, of the University of Southern California, studying skeletal tissue regeneration; and Pinghui Feng, PhD, of the University of Southern California, studying links between viral infections and oral inflammation.

“To ensure the long-term stability of the biomedical research enterprise, we must encourage successful independent careers for early-stage investigators and retain them as they become more established,” said NIDCR director Martha Somerman, DDS, PhD.

“The SOAR Awards will enable these 4 outstanding investigators to continue their career trajectories while pursuing dental, oral, and craniofacial projects that have the potential to break new ground and ultimately improve human health,” said Somerman.

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