Research Could Spur Development of Novel Oral Cancer Therapeutic Strategies That Target Sensory Neurons

Nicole Scheff, PhD

Nicole N. Scheff, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Brian L. Schmidt, DDS, MD, PhD, director of NYU Bluestone Center for Clinical Research and NYU Oral Cancer Center at NYU Dentistry, has received a Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00). This grant, funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), supports exceptional postdoctoral researchers during their transition to independent research careers.

The award (K99DE028019) provides $950,000 over five years for Scheff’s investigation of the reciprocal impact of neuron-cancer communication on oral cancer pain and oral cancer growth. Under the initial (K99) phase of the award, Scheff will receive support for two years of mentored postdoctoral research and career development under Schmidt. The second (R00) phase will provide three years of additional research funding after Scheff transitions to an independent research position.

Scheff’s previous research with Schmidt revealed pain-like behavior in a preclinical model of oral cancer.  In that model Scheff found that neurons adjacent to the tumor responded at a lower stimulation threshold. Scheff also discovered that nerves adjacent to a tumor can play a significant role in cancer progression.

“The peripheral nervous system has been scrutinized primarily for its role as a conduit for the transmission of cancer pain,” said Scheff. “However, in recent experiments, we found that nerves affect cancer growth; we chemically blocked the activity of the neurons near a tumor and found that pain and tumor size decreased and that the quantity of cancer-fighting immune cells increased.”

Medications that block nerve activity near a tumor might reduce both tumor growth and cancer pain. Scheff advocates for additional research directed at the peripheral nervous system and cancer.

“It is crucial to explore peripherally selective approaches for pain control. While opioids temporally alleviate oral cancer pain, they also produce severe side effects in the central nervous system,” said Scheff. “Our work introduces the possibility of a new treatment approach for pain that would block nerves at the site of the cancer without affecting neuronal activity in the brain. As a bonus, our approach might also reduce the size of the tumor.”

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