Research to Explore Racial Disparities in Head and Neck Cancer

Dentistry Today
Photo: Bekah Mulberg


Photo: Bekah Mulberg

Fatemeh (Flora) Momen-Heravi, DDS, PhD, has received a three-year, $750,000 Science of the Patient grant from the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and the Mark Foundation for Cancer Research to research racial disparities in head and neck cancer.

A member of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) and an assistant professor at the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine, Momen-Heravi is a clinician-scientist whose lab aims to identify signaling mechanisms and tumor vulnerabilities in head and neck cancer and in lung cancer.

Momen-Heravi’s lab also works on novel genome editing technologies based on the CRISPR/CAS framework and studies exosomes as precision medicine tools to treat cancer.

Head and neck cancers are among the most common types of cancers worldwide and account for more than 300,000 deaths each year, according to Columbia University, with only about a 50% five-year survival rate even after surgery.

This poor prognosis is due to head and neck cancer’s tendency to both reappear and metastasize in other parts of the body. Epidemiological data also has demonstrated another urgent matter in head and neck cancer, according to Momen-Heravi and her collaborators.

“Healthcare disparities is a research area that has not been well addressed for head and neck cancer, and this includes disparities that exist between white and black patients in terms of screening, detection, treatment, and survival for head and neck cancer,” said Momen-Heravi, who also is a member of the HICCC’s Tumor Biology and Microenvironment program.

“Although socioeconomic and environmental factors play a heavy role in these disparities observed, head and neck cancer rates among different racial groups cannot be attributed to these factors alone,” she said. “We are interested in the role race plays on a cellular and molecular level in head and neck cancer. There is still much to learn here.”

With collaborator Dr. Alison Taylor and other members of the HICCC’s head and neck cancer group, Momen-Heravi will work to uncover some of the molecular uniqueness of head and neck cancer that may be present in different racial groups. The work aims to aid in the development of patient-specific and targeted treatment options for head and neck cancer.

“With the support of the AACR and the Mark Foundation, we hope this research can bring us one step closer in closing the racial disparities that currently exist in head and neck cancer,” said Momen-Heravi.

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