Momen-Heravi Awarded NIDCR/NIH Grant for Pioneering Research on Early Detection of Oral Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Fatemeh Momen-Heravi, DDS, PhD, an associate professor at the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine and director of the Momen-Heravi Cancer Biology and Immunology Lab, has been awarded a grant of more than $3.5 million from NIDCR/NIH to support her groundbreaking research on oral cancer, the sixth leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide. Momen-Heravi is collaborating on this research with Dr. Elizabeth Phillipone from CDM, Dr. Hiro Nakagawa from Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center, Dr. Jeanine Genkinger from the Mailman School of Public Health, and Dr. Nicolas Robine from the New York Genome Center.

Fatemeh Momen-Heravi, DDS, PhD Principal Investigator

Oral cancer, when detected early, can be cured. A majority of these carcinomas are preceded by oral pre-cancerous lesions, with oral leukoplakia being the most prevalent. The challenge lies in discerning which of these pre-cancerous will progress to oral cancer.

Microscopic examination and histological grading are the current standards for predicting malignant transformation but are often inadequate. For instance, not all high-grade oral preneoplastic lesions lead to oral cancer, while some low-grade ones do. There is an urgent need for effective biomarkers that can identify pre-cancerous lesions with a high risk for oral cancer conversion in order to effectively guide treatment.

Momen-Heravi seeks to bridge the existing knowledge gap, with the ultimate goal of enhancing early detection of oral cancer and improving patient survival rates. Initial investigations from her laboratory have pinpointed distinct alterations in immune cells and molecular markers that correlate with the progression of oral preneoplastic lesions to full-blown oral cancer. Leveraging cutting-edge techniques such as spatial transcriptomics and multiplex immune fluorescence, the team has discerned that malignantly transformed pre-cancerous lesions exhibit a marked rise in immunosuppressive tumor-associated macrophages and a concomitant decline in CD8+ T-cells. These CD8+ T-cells, commonly termed "killer T-cells," are pivotal in the immune system's defense mechanism, specifically in identifying and eradicating cancerous cells. This noticeable shift in the immune profile indicates that immune suppression within the tissue plays a pivotal role in the malignant transformation and the ability of precancerous lesions to evade immune detection.

The potential impact of this research is immense. By delving into the role of immune cells in the progression of oral cancer and pioneering a tailored risk stratification approach for managing oral premalignant lesions, the project offers the prospect of substantially elevating patient survival rates and refining the oral cancer screening protocols. Pinpointing the mediators of immune evasion could also pave the way for the discovery of novel immunotherapies aimed at cancer prevention.