Grant to Support Investigation into What Causes Oral Cancer Pain

Dentistry Today
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The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research has awarded Yi Ye, PhD, a $2.2 million, five-year grant to study the role of Schwann cells, the most prevalent type of cell supporting neurons in the peripheral nervous system, in oral cancer progression and pain. 

Oral cancer patients suffer from excruciating pain, according to the New York University (NYU) College of Dentistry, often severely impairing their ability to speak, eat, and drink. Cancer penetrates the nerve in a process called perineural invasion, causing pain and making it more difficult to treat. How oral cancer invades nerves and causes pain is poorly understood.

“A deeper understanding of the cellular and molecular mechanisms of how oral cancer cells invade nerves will help researchers to identify new targets for treating patients with oral cancer and associated pain,” said Ye, an assistant professor at the school’s Bluestone Center for Clinical Research. 

Ye studies the neurobiology of oral cancer pain. Her research program is dedicated to the understanding of shared molecular and cellular pathways underlying oral cancer progression and pain. In recent years, her lab has focused on the interaction between oral cancer cells and Schwann cells, which are found in the peripheral nervous system. 

In response to nerve injury, Schwann cells convert into an activated form to repair neuronal structure and function. One way nerve injury could occur is through cancer cells invading the nerve, according to the school. 

Ye hypothesizes that Schwann cells are activated by oral cancer and can attract cancer cells, creating an environment that supports cancer growth and invasion of the nerve. Activated Schwann cells also can release molecules that are responsible for oral cancer pain. 

In the newly funded study, Ye and her team will use a combination of genetic, molecular, electrophysiological, anatomical, and behavioral approaches to understand how Schwann cells are activated by oral cancer cells and identify the pain-causing mediators released by activated Schwann cells.

“Controlling Schwann cell activation or the production of pain-causing mediators could be used as novel strategies for oral cancer pain,” said Ye. “Our study will explore the potential of shutting down Schwann cell activation to prevent oral cancer from invading the nerve and causing pain.”

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