Research to Reprogram White Blood Cells to Fight Oral Cancer

Dentistry Today


The University at Buffalo has received a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the United States Department of Defense to develop new therapies that help reduce chronic inflammation and immunosuppression in oral cancers.

The research will center on a type of white blood cell called a macrophage that, after migrating to oral tumors, triggers uncontrolled inflammation, which suppresses the body’s immune response and lowers the effectiveness of anticancer therapies.

The researchers aim to reprogram the macrophages by targeting genes that regulate inflammation. By reducing inflammation, oral cancers will become more sensitive to new and traditional chemotherapies, the researchers said.

If successful, the findings could help increase survivorship of oral cancers, which claim the lives of roughly half of all oral cancer patients within five years, the researchers said.

“A change in behavior in the white blood cells within the tumor itself removes the brakes in the system, causing more oral cancer growth,” said principal investigator Keith Kirkwood, DDS, PhD, Centennial Endowed Chair and professor of oral biology at the UB School of Dental Medicine.

“We propose to reprogram the white blood cells to regain control of the brakes,” said Kirkwood, who also is associate dean for innovation and technology transfer at the UB School of Dental Medicine.

The research will focus on oral squamous cell carcinoma, the most common type of oral cancer. Found in the lips, mouth, or throat, oral cancers can affect the ability to eat and speak and may cause permanent disfigurement of the face.

Veterans are twice as likely to develop head and neck cancers as non-veterans, Kirkwood said. The increased risk may be attributed to higher rates of alcohol and tobacco use among veterans, he added. Nearly 75% of oral cancers are caused either by alcohol or tobacco use, according to outside research.

UB will be joined by additional investigators from the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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