NYU Oral Cancer Center Translates Scientific Discoveries into Better Treatment

Brian Schmidt, DDS, MD, PhD


Oral cancer is an ominous diagnosis. Its symptoms are debilitating, and five-year survival after diagnosis is approximately 60%. Improvements in oral cancer treatment can only be achieved through well-funded, meticulously designed, clinical and translational research.

I founded the New York University Oral Cancer Center (NYUOCC) to address the daunting clinical challenges posed by oral cancer. We address oral cancer pain in patients and simultaneously advance laboratory investigation dedicated to the study of oral cancer symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

A critical unmet need in oral cancer treatment is pain management. Oral cancer patients endure severe chronic pain during everyday functions such as chewing and speaking. As a surgeon, I am unable to adequately manage oral cancer pain in many of my patients. I continue to prescribe opioids to treat chronic pain, but efficacy is limited as patients develop opioid tolerance. The side effects of these drugs, including sedation, severely degrade quality of life.

Moreover, there is an opioid epidemic of misuse and addiction. Approximately 500,000 Americans have died from opioid overdose over the last two decades. Although many of these deaths are caused by opiates such as heroin, the cycle of addiction and death is often initiated by illicit use of prescription drugs diverted from their intended purpose. We are working to find more effective treatment for cancer pain and other forms of chronic pain that can replace opioids.

Our center draws clinicians and scientists to a single location in New York City to diagnose, treat, and study oral cancer. We translate scientific discoveries from the laboratory into better treatment for cancer and cancer symptoms. All patients seen at NYUOCC can be screened for enrollment in clinical studies, and scores of oral cancer patients have volunteered to participate in research.

Our researchers collect samples from the majority of patients who receive oral cancer treatment in our facilities. These samples are scrutinized at the cellular, molecular, and genomic levels in laboratories located within the same building. Analysis of laboratory findings obtained in preclinical studies can subsequently lead to clinical trials at the NYU Bluestone Center for Clinical Research.

Through collaboration between clinicians and scientists, we explore numerous areas of research pertinent to the most salient symptom and treatment challenges confronted by our oral cancer patients. We have undertaken translational clinical studies on proteomics and genomics to identify and validate biomarkers of oral cancer progression and metastasis.

NYUOCC researchers have recently identified cancer-secreted mediators responsible for oral cancer pain. These mediators also regulate cancer growth. We now seek to manipulate the action of these mediators to improve oral cancer treatment.

We are developing strategies for pain relief that target specific genes and use nanoparticles to deliver the therapies to cells or sub-cellular compartments for optimal efficacy. Much of this work involves research on specific cell surface receptors including TRPV1 and PAR2. The NYUOCC is also facilitating collection and preservation of an archive of oral cancer patient specimens.

Housed at the NYU College of Dentistry, our center attracts researchers and clinical experts in a variety of research fields including cancer biology, oncology, pain neuroscience, and genomics. Five full-time faculty undertake grant-funded research on oral cancer and oral cancer pain.

I am honored to work alongside Yi Ye MS, PhD, MBA; Donna Albertson, PhD; Aditi Bhattacharya, BDS, MDS, PhD; and Nigel Bunnett, PhD. Since the founding of NYUOCC in 2013, we have garnered over $31 million in funding from federal grants and foundation support for research related to oral cancer and chronic pain.

The funds support the complete gamut of research from lab to clinic, including translational science, which is research that employs findings from basic science to improve clinical treatment. Through our studies, we continue to chip away at the challenges faced by patients that shorten and despoil their lives.

Dr. Schmidt is the director of the NYU Oral Cancer Center, the director of the NYU Bluestone Center for Clinical Research, and professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the NYU College of Dentistry.

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