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UCSF, NYU Team on Oral Cancer Marker

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Scientists at The University of California, San Francisco and New York University will use a National Cancer Institute grant to fund a study to validate biomarkers that could be used to make important treatment decisions for oral cancer patients.

The investigators at UCSF's Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and NYU will use the two-year, $380,000 grant to validate genomic markers in tumors that may predict whether oral squamous cell carcinoma is likely to spread. Specifically, the partners plan to develop and validate a fluorescence in situ hybridization-based assay to detect DNA copy number variants that would be analyzed before surgery.

Knowing which oral cancers may metastasize would enable doctors to avoid performing unnecessary surgeries on oral cancer patients when there is little clinical evidence that their cancers have metastasized to the neck.

Because oral cancer is often fatal if it spreads to the neck, many patients undergo pre-emptive neck dissection surgery even if there is no clinical or radiological evidence of metastasis. Even though it is unnecessary for most patients, the surgery is used because of the fear and danger of hidden cancer. The surgery is invasive, lasts four hours, and is associated with life-altering morbidity, including stroke, according to NYU.

“We can dramatically improve quality of life if we can accurately identify those who do not need a neck dissection; morbidity and recovery time would be reduced, and we would alleviate anxiety for many patients and families," Brian Schmidt, professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the NYU College of Dentistry and an investigator on the project, said in a statement.

Schmidt and principal investigator Professor Donna Albertson at UCSF have already identified candidate genomic markers in tumors that can predict if an oral cancer is likely to spread to the neck. According to details in the National Institutes of Health's abstract of the research project, their observations have been replicated in an independent oral SCC cohort.

Schmidt, who directs the NYU Bluestone Center for Clinical Research, will head the clinical component of the study, including recruiting subjects, enrolling patients, and collecting specimens, and Albertson's group at UCSF will then process and analyze the samples.

"It has taken us eight years of research to converge on a genomic marker that could be used to tailor treatment for oral cancer patients. We look forward to testing this marker in a clinical study and this funding will help up us to develop the appropriate laboratory test for such a trial," Albertson explained.

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