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NIDCR to Fund Research into Basis of Oral Cancer Initiating Cells

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research plans to award $1.5 million next year to fund researchers delving into the molecular and cell-level biology of cancer initiating cells (CICs), also called cancer stem cells, which may be involved in oral cancers.

In a pair of new RFAs, the institute said that recent evidence that CICs play a functional role in tumors in other areas of the body has led to the hypothesis that they may enable some cancers to evade therapies.

This idea suggests that therapies that specifically target CICs within a tumor mass would be better than conventional therapies by essentially attacking the root of a cancer. It also opens up the possibility that CIC signatures could pose "unprecedented opportunities for developing highly sensitive molecular probes for enabling early disease and treatment optimization," NIDCR said.

For this program NIDCR is particularly interested in research projects that would characterize the basic molecular and cellular properties, functional roles, and microenvironments of CICs that are involved in oral squamous cell carcinomas (OSCCs).

OSCCs account for the majority of head and neck cancers, and recurrence rates and morbidity are high, even though the five-year survival rate has increased over the past 30 years, according to NIDCR, making this a disease area that is ripe for novel research efforts and new treatments.

The main reasons behind the limited survival rates are late diagnosis, recurrence, metastasis, and resistance to therapy. Current treatment options are limited and involve surgical and cytotoxic approaches that lead to morbidity and impair quality of life for patients, according to NIDCR.

Although oral CICs may provide a target for new treatment approaches, there are "considerable knowledge gaps" in CIC biology and function, in how they originate, how they are involved in tumor development and progression, and how they proliferate, differentiate, and survive, the institute said. The projects funded under this program would aim to fill in these gaps.

The institute plans to fund projects seeking to find out if novel, reliable, and robust in vivo functional assays can be developed that test the capacity of CICs to initiate cancer, as well as efforts to genetically trace the developmental lineage of oral CICs in primary tumors in vivo and link it to tumor progression.

These projects also will seek to find out if signaling pathways that are unique to oral CICs can be targeted, if they can be tracked and targeted at a single-cell level, and if their unique properties of self-renewal, differentiation, and phenotypic fluidity can be used in therapies.

NIDCR also wants to support projects seeking to find out if there are minimal genetic or epigenetic signatures or cellular and intracellular markers that distinguish oral CICs from most other tumor cells and normal cells.

Under one RFA, NIDCR will provide up to $275,000 to fund projects lasting up to two years, and under another it will support projects of up to four years with a budget that reflects the needs of the research proposal.

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