Trying improve oral cancer treatment

September 22, 2011 3:12:21 PM PDT
It's a journey that can begin in the mirror or at the dentist's office.

A small lesion in the mouth or throat can turn out to be oral cancer. Notoriously known to be unpredictable, these cancers are hard to treat, but some young doctors at the New York University's School of Dentistry are working to change that.

Oral cancers take one American life every hour and it's because the unpredictability is a challenge. One person's cancer might be slow growing and another's wildly aggressive. It is impossible to tell which it is.

The NYU researchers are trying to decipher their instruction codes, their genomics. If doctors know which way the cancer is going, it can be stopped.

Halima Mohammed always carries water she constantly needs to drink. She is also a big consumer of fruits and vegetables. The reason: for nine years she has been fighting an oral cancer.

"I can't have solid food so I get my nutrition from juices and most of these foods, especially the cabbage and the broccoli, are cancer fighting foods," she said.

The cancer has had a huge impact on her life. She's already lost part of her tongue.

"It is from my research of the most painful type of cancers that you can have and I'm not diminishing cancer and the types of cancer, there is a constant pain, constant pain," said Mohammed. "It makes masticating difficult, swallowing difficult. You cannot have your favorite food anymore."

But, Mohammed carries on, and now at the NYU College of Dentistry she's helping the doctors find out more about cancers like hers.

It's a challenge Dr. Brian Schmdit has taken on. He wears many hats at the school, among them he's clinical director of the Bluestone Center for Clinical Research and he's trying to understand more about oral cancers.

"Oral cancers are very tricky because they have highly variable clinical patterns where one patient can do very well after treatment and another patient does not do well," he said. "

That different behavior lies in the cancer's genes and their genomics are the subject of his research, identifying and tracking the genes of the different cancer will eventually benefit patients.

"We're hoping that it can be personalized, that we can use certain genetic markers in the cancer to tailor our treatment, to know which persons need aggressive treatment and which patients don't need that aggressive treatment," said Dr. Schmdit

With information about the cancer's genes, doctors might be better able to predict who needs radiation, which needs no de dissection and prevent much of the overtreatment that now is necessary.

Oral cancer is found by dentists and patients, so if there is a pain or a ulcer or a suspicious area, get checked out for it.