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Fueling the Fight Against Oral Cancer Fueling the fight against oral cancer

February 2005

by Natalie Gutierrez

One American dies of oral cancer every hour, 24 hours a day, despite therapy advancement.

"More than 30,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer this year," said Silvana Papagerakis, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of dental diagnostic science. "Of those 30,000 newly diagnosed patients, only half will be alive in five years. Over the past 50 years there has been no significant improvement in the survival rate of oral cancer patients, mainly due to the high risk of cancer metastasis," she said.

The Health Science Center is ahead of the game when it comes to oral cancer research. The university has established a new laboratory dedicated to oral cancer research in the department of dental diagnostic science. The 1,975-square-foot facility, directed by Dr. Papagerakis, is equipped with cutting-edge technology and will serve as infrastructure for the translational research in oral cancer being conducted by Martin Thornhill, Ph.D., professor and chairman of dental diagnostic science, and his team of researchers.

Dr. Thornhill’s research was presented at the recent San Antonio Cancer Institute’s 13th annual Cancer Research Symposium and the eighth annual International Conference on Chemistry and Biology of Mineralized Tissues.

By studying the mechanisms that govern tumor metastasis through the blood and lymphatic vessels using a specialized image analysis system, researchers hope to identify valuable markers that could help predict the risk of metastasis for any oral tumor. These lab developments will soon be incorporated into a clinical study that has the ultimate goal of improving treatment and outcome of oral cancer.

"If oral cancer is caught early, there is an 80 percent chance of survival," Dr. Papagerakis said. Researchers hope to give clinicians markers and indicators that will help identify oral cancer earlier.

Dental diagnostic science researchers are working with ear, nose and throat and pathology physicians to enroll patients with oral cancer into their study. Researchers will follow the patients’ progress over the next five years.

Melissa J. Smith contributed to this story.


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