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NYU duo including ADA member dentist receives grant to further study oral cancer pain

September 09, 2019

By David Burger

Dr. Schmidt
Teamwork: Dr. Brian Schmidt, M.D., Ph.D., left, and Donna Albertson, Ph.D., are NYU researchers seeking to improve oral cancer treatment and alleviate pain.
New York — An ADA member who founded the New York University Oral Cancer Center was among researchers who received a $2.5 million grant to study the role of the protein artemin in oral cancer pain and growth.

The grant is from the National Cancer Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. The principal investigators Dr. Brian L. Schmidt, M.D., Ph.D., and Donna Albertson, Ph.D., seek to improve oral cancer treatment and alleviate pain, said Dr. Schmidt, through investigation of one specific protein.

“I am unable to adequately manage oral cancer pain with the therapies that are currently available,” said Dr. Schmidt, ADA member, professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the NYU College of Dentistry and director of the NYU Oral Cancer Center. “Ever greater opioid doses are required as drug tolerance develops.”

Drs. Schmidt and Albertson began their investigation of artemin when a molecular analysis of oral cancers from patients seen at the center revealed high expression of artemin in tumors of the patients with pain. Dr. Schmidt said the discovery “invigorated the pace of our work because the follow-up studies required to scientifically test the role of artemin are readily achievable over the next five years.  This is an extremely productive time for scientists in the fields of molecular biology and genomics and we hope to lead commensurate advances in cancer treatment.”

Dr. Schmidt, who founded the NYU Oral Cancer Center in 2013, studied people with oral cancer who volunteered to participate in an ongoing investigation of cancer pain. Prior to surgery, Dr. Schmidt measured pain using a validated patient questionnaire. A sample of the patient’s cancer and normal oral tissue were collected during surgery and compared at a molecular level.

After analyzing the questionnaire and molecular data, Drs. Albertson and Schmidt discovered a correlation between artemin levels and pain. They also found that artemin promoted growth of oral cancers.
Dr. Albertson, professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the NYU College of Dentistry, said in a NYU news release that “we compared tens of thousands of genes in normal tissue and in oral tumors.  The vast majority of genes remain unchanged but the gene that codes for artemin is highly expressed in oral cancer.

“Artemin became the obvious target to simultaneously address cancer growth and pain,” she said in the release.

Dr. Schmidt said that oral cancer patients endure severe chronic pain during everyday function such as chewing and speaking. “For unknown reasons, oral cancer pain is often more severe than pain generated by any other type of cancer,” he said, spurring him to seek new treatments through research.

“Debilitating side effects degrade quality of life in a population of patients who also face an ominous five-year survival rate,” he said.

Dr. Schmidt has investigated oral cancer pain at the molecular level since 2002 to alleviate pain in patients through improved pharmacologic therapy.

He earned his dental, medical and doctoral degrees from the University of California, San Francisco.

The American Cancer Society estimates more than 51,500 people with cancers of the mouth, throat, tonsils, and tongue in 2018.

The National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research provides an oral cancer examination protocol for dental practitioners at