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Grant Funds Research in Oral Cancer Detection

Tuesday, December 18, 2012 - 3:29pm

N. Vigneswaran, DDS, DrMedDent,DMD

N. Vigneswaran, DDS, DMD

Early and easy detection of oral cancers is the focus of one University of Texas School of Dentistry professor who just received a grant to zero in on one group especially vulnerable to such tumors. 

Nadarajah Vigneswaran, DDS, DrMedDent, DMD, professor in the Department of Diagnostic and Biomedical Sciences, was awarded a $43,000 grant from the UTHealth Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences in November as part of its Pilot Awards Program.

The research will focus on Fanconi anemia, a rare genetic disease which makes patients much more susceptible to head and neck cancers, among many other serious ailments.

Vigneswaran is part of a larger collaborative effort with researchers at UT M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Rice University to develop a noninvasive brush biopsy that could quickly determine whether mouth or tongue lesions are malignant.

Using a large database of cells from oral lesions, researchers are pinpointing particular biomarkers and cell structures that delineate cancerous growths from noncancerous ones. The ultimate goal is a simple device in a dentist’s or doctor’s office that can instantly analyze cells taken from a brush biopsy. 

Fanconi anemia patients are almost certain to develop an oral cancer at some point, Vigneswaran said, and their condition makes them ineligible for radiation or chemotherapy, so they must rely on surgery. With fewer treatment options, early detection is especially important.

Also, the quick-and-easy brush method – similar to a Pap smear – would be an improvement over painful scalpel biopsies which cut tissue and often require anesthesia, Vigneswaran added.

With the CCTS grant, he will examine whether this brush biopsy would be effective for Fanconi anemia patients by collecting cell samples from them for comparison to the larger database of oral cancer samples to see if they exhibit similar patterns and biomarkers.    

The Pilot Awards are intended as seed grants for UTHealth researchers to kick-start projects and help them garner outside funding.  Vigneswaran’s co-investigators on the project are Ann Gillenwater, MD, professor at M.D. Anderson’s Department of Head and Neck Surgery; Pierre Floriano, PhD, and John McDevitt, PhD, both of Rice’s Department of Bioengineering and Chemistry.