Three University of Michigan faculty members are lead collaborators on research into new cancer prevention therapies that are funded by a $3.8 million federal grant and part of the national Cancer Moonshot Initiative.

Co-principal investigators on the School of Dentistry-based project are:

  • Yu Leo Lei, assistant professor of dentistry, School of Dentistry; and adjunct assistant professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery, Medical School.
  • Nouri Neamati, John G. Searle Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and professor of medicinal chemistry, College of Pharmacy.
  • Chad Brenner, assistant professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery, Medical School.

The five-year grant from the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research supports research that is part of the NCI’s Immuno-Oncology Translational Network, which fosters team science to translate basic discoveries to new cancer immunotherapies.

The network is part of the Cancer Moonshot Initiative, which was established on the recommendation of a national blue-ribbon panel consisting of leading experts from a wide spectrum of scientific fields, cancer advocacy organizations and pharmaceutical companies.

Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act in December 2016, authorizing $1.8 billion in funding for the Cancer Moonshot Initiative, which aims to achieve a decade’s worth of transformative progress in cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment in just five years.

Oral leukoplakias — white patches or spots in the mouth — often represent oral epithelial dysplasias that precede oral cancers and offer a unique time window for disease eradication.

However, surgical resection in the orofacial region results in significant morbidity and function loss, and more importantly, cannot reverse field cancerization where pre-malignant lesions keep recurring. A subset of oral epithelial dysplasias transforms into malignancy despite vigilant follow-ups.

As one of only three U01 cooperative agreements within the Immuno-Oncology Translational Network focused on immunoprevention and the only one based in a dental school, this project will help precisely identify oral leukoplakias with a bona fide high risk, understand the immune landscape shift as pre-malignant lesions progress, and employ advanced medicinal chemistry approaches for more effective immuno-prevention.

The program title is “Robust Immuno-prevention Strategies for High-Risk Oral Epithelial Dysplasia.”

“Our focus is on helping patients with high-risk oral leukoplakia and oral cancer and on developing immuno-prevention strategies that also maximally preserve function,” Lei said.

“Currently, the method of identifying OEDs with a high malignant transformation potential and preventing them from transforming remains very limited. We appreciate the opportunity to be surrounded by the esteemed colleagues here at Michigan and the IOTN network to address this challenge.”

Co-investigators or consultants from U-M are Fei Wen, associate professor of chemical engineering, College of Engineering; and Mark Prince, professor of otolaryngology — head and neck surgery, Medical School. Co-investigators and consultants from other institutions are Yuying Xie of Michigan State University and Brad Neville of the Medical University of South Carolina.

“They bring transformative technologies, an entrepreneurial spirit and a joint vision to advance immuno-prevention approaches,” Lei said.

“Leveraging their expertise as well as the IOTN technology hub and data center creates a truly multidisciplinary structure to catalyze the success of this translational program. The integration of our program into this national infrastructure will also help us receive expert input to realize our promise to patients.”

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