Dr. Joseph Guttenplan, a professor of basic science and craniofacial biology at New York University’s College of Dentistry, has received a two-year, $320,000 grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), part of the National Institute of Health (NIH), to test a unique new method for comparing early changes in human cells exposed to smoke from regular and low-tar cigarettes. The team will also investigate an ultra low-tar version, which the tobacco industry claims is less toxic because it heats tobacco instead of burning it.

Although previous studies suggested low-tar cigarette smoke is slightly less toxic, the research has been limited to tobacco’s effects on laboratory animals. Dr. Guttenplan’s team’s plans to study normal human oral cells mixed with genetically engineered rat cells.

The team’s method will be to observe the changes occurring after liquefied tobacco smoke is added to the cell mixture. The genetically engineered rat cells act as “sensors,” detecting mutations in human cells exposed to tobacco smoke. These mutations, beginning as soon as two weeks after exposure, can represent the earliest stage of oral cancer. At the conclusion of the study, the researchers will assess which kind of cigarette smoke caused the greatest number of mutations. A significantly higher mutation rate would indicate a greater cancer risk.

“Our study will be useful for comparing the cancer risk of different cigarettes,” said the team leader, Dr. Joseph Guttenplan, a professor of basic science and craniofacial biology. Dr. Guttenplan’s co-investigators are Dr. Peter Sacks, professor of basic science and craniofacial biology, and Dr. Fang-An Chen, adjunct professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery.

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