ICRF Grant Exploring Early Stage Oral Cancer

Professor Hovav, an ICRF Project Grant recipient, and Yasmin Saba talk about research on the early stages of oral cancer, specifically the role played by Langerhans cells – immune cells located in the epidermis.

We are particularly interested in your research as it relates to oral cancer.  Can you briefly describe what you are working on?

Oral cancer is often diagnosed at late stages, resulting in a poor prognosis and, unfortunately, low survival rates. Understanding early events taking place during the development of oral cancer is an important unmet clinical need. Our research team aims to reveal such precancerous mechanisms by focusing on special cells of the immune system – Langerhans cells (LC). LCs are strategically located in the oral epithelium, the tissue where oral cancer begins, and are considered the first immune cells to encounter changes in the epithelium that may develop into cancer. With ICRF’s support, we were able to demonstrate that LCs play a protective role during the first stages of oral cancer. However, LCs disappear rapidly from the epithelium (thin tissue forming the outer layer of the body’s surface), leaving it unguarded and enabling oral cancer to progress. We also have uncovered the pathological mechanism that causes the loss of LCs, a process allowing the development of tumor-promoting conditions in the oral epithelium.

What, if any, will be the potential impact on patients? 

The number of LCs has been proposed as a strong and independent prognostic factor for human oral cancer. Moreover, clinical studies previously reported a decrease in the numbers of LCs during the development of oral cancer. It was not clear, however, what role LCs play in the disease and why their numbers decrease before oral cancer develops. While our study provides an explanation to these important questions, it also represents an opportunity to use this knowledge to establish a novel approach for the early diagnosis of oral cancer. This will be achieved by identifying early carcinogenic changes in the oral epithelium that prevent the differentiation of LCs and reduce their numbers. Translating such basic knowledge to the clinic will facilitate the detection of oral cancer in patients at early stages, thereby improving the survival rates of this devastating disease.

Can you tell us how ICRF has been helpful in your career journey?

For several years, my research group has studied the development and function of the oral immune system. We particularly focused on LCs due to their strategic location and ability to orchestrate the activity of the oral immune system. The funding I received from the ICRF has allowed us to translate our knowledge on oral LCs to study their involvement in oral cancer. This prestigious grant also enables me to secure other funds to explore the link between oral cancer and LCs and, hopefully, to develop novel strategies for the early diagnosis of oral cancer.  ICRF has opened the door for me to pursue cancer research, and I thank the ICRF for this great opportunity.