Global Health Nexus, Summer 2002

Grants and Philanthropy

NYU Dentistry Receives $1 Million-Plus NIH Grant to Study Why Precancerous Cells Become Cancer

Dr. Peter Sacks, an associate professor of basic science and craniofacial biology, has received a grant in excess of $1 million from the NIH to investigate the characteristics of precancerous lesions in the mouth that allow them to outgrow normal cells and become malignant. Dr. Sacks is one of the very few people in the world who has been able to develop and maintain premalignant cell lines. His objective is to determine how to prevent cells that are not normal but are not malignant either, as in leukoplakia, for example, from overgrowing and becoming cancer.

By looking at early manifestations of disease, Dr. Sacks hopes to identify the characteristics of premalignant cells that give them an advantage in growth, so that when insulted by smoking, drinking, and other risk factors, they are ripe to become cancer. He is also looking at tissue cultures of premalignant cell lines, normal epithelium, and bona fide cancer cells, to see how they interact, and how, by manipulating the cells, abnormal cells can be prevented from overgrowing and becoming cancer.

“In recent years, we have been focusing on prevention,” explains Dr. Sacks. “The idea of chemoprevention is to find an agent that suppresses the disease and puts it on hold. That way, a patient can live the rest of his or her life, not have cancer, and not be forced to have a lesion removed that may or may not become cancer.” One potentially chemopreventive agent under investigation is curcumin, a spice that gives curry its yellow color, and has been shown in studies to inhibit the growth of abnormal cells.

Dr. Sacks’s grant will run for five years.