September 20, 2022 | Loma Linda, California, United States | By Ansel Oliver, Loma Linda University Health

Loma Linda University School of Dentistry has received a $4-million R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study oral cancer.

The award will fund a study to validate the ability of epigenetic biomarkers to predict risk of mortality in oral cancer patients.

Currently, oral cancer patients have poor survival rates, with only 60% of patients surviving past five years, even with early-stage cancer, researchers said.

Dr. Chi Viet is an attending surgeon in the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery and the principal investigator for the grant. [Photo: Loma Linda University Health]

“Treatment failure lies in the complexity of the cancer, and despite our best efforts, survival has not significantly improved for this disease in the past decades,” said Chi T. Viet, DDS, MD, PhD, associate professor and attending surgeon in the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, and the principal investigator for the grant. “This study aims to unravel the molecular fingerprint of the cancer in each patient and to identify the patients at highest risk for treatment failure.”

Viet said she hopes that funding of oral cancer research will in turn lead to improved survival rates. She said it’s a misconception that oral cancer is caused only by heavy smoking and drinking. Studies, she said, are showing that even young patients without these traditional risk factors have poor survival when they are diagnosed with oral cancer.  Her goal is to improve outcomes by enrolling patients in her own surgical practice to understand the molecular mechanisms driving oral cancer. Nationally, only 0.7% of surgeons are funded by NIH, of which only a proportion are awarded prestigious R01 grants, Viet said.

The award of an R01 grant is another step toward the Loma Linda University Cancer Center’s goal of becoming designated as an NCI Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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