Robert Witt, M.D., chief of the Multidisciplinary Head and Neck Oncology Clinic at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center, is the clinician/scientist principal investigator (PI) in the four-year initiative. Other PIs named in the grant are Cindy Farach-Carson, Ph.D., a biologist at Rice University in Houston, and Xinqiao Jia, Ph.D., a materials engineer at the University of Delaware. Grant funding comes from NIH's National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.
"The purpose of our project is to relieve the debilitating lack of saliva in a patient who has undergone radiation treatments for throat cancer," Dr. Witt says. "These patients have lost the ability to swallow properly and enjoy food and liquids. They suffer from a lack of taste and are prone to many dental problems."
Research project grants, known as R01, are highly competitive. NIH awards them to specified projects that a named investigator or investigators perform.
"Dr. Witt's hard work over the last several years has paid off with this NIH RO1 grant, which are extremely difficult grants to get funded," says Nicholas J. Petrelli, M.D., Bank of America Endowed medical director at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center at Christiana Care. "This is a great achievement for Dr. Witt, his team, Christiana Care and ultimately cancer patients who will benefit from this research."
Working with researchers at the Center for Translational Cancer Research at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center, Dr. Witt is a national leader working toward the development of artificial salivary glands. Research focuses on ways to grow cells taken from patients before they undergo radiation treatment.
The team awarded the grant also includes Randall Duncan, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Biological Sciences at UD, Swati Pradhan Bhatt, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow at UD and Dan Harrington, Ph.D., from the Materials Science Department at Rice University.
"Their work at the Center for Translational Cancer Research is of enormous importance and they play an essential role in this great honor," Dr. Witt says.
Already, the team has discovered a laboratory technique to isolate salivary acinar cells in culture. Acinar cells are the basic building blocks of salivary glands and are responsible for water and enzyme production.
Researchers then stimulate the cultured cells with neuro-transmitters that support their ability to make water and enzymes. Encasing the cells in an absorbable matrix of hyaluronic acid allows them to grow toward each other, and differentiate into spheroid acinar-like structures that are necessary for producing saliva.
"The new cells look very much like the original tissue," Dr. Witt says.
Ultimately, doctors will re-implant the patients' own cells back into their damaged salivary glands when radiation is complete.
"Our goal is to return the function of the patient's salivary glands and reduce human suffering," Dr. Witt says.
About the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center at Christiana Care As one of the first National Cancer Institute Community Cancer Centers Program awarded sites in the U.S., the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center at Christiana Care is a national model for cancer care. The program features some of the world's most advanced medical technology and a comprehensive array of services and amenities to make cancer diagnosis and treatment as convenient and comfortable as possible. More cancer patients enroll in clinical trials at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center than in virtually any other program in the country. Cancer centers across the nation emulate the patient-navigation system, and the unique model of care gives every cancer patient quick access to a team of world-class cancer specialists. The Helen F. Graham Cancer Center is one of the largest cancer programs on the East Coast, recording more than 195,000 patient visits last year.
About the Center for Translational Cancer Research Established in 2004, the Center for Translational Cancer Research is a formal collaborative program among the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center at Christiana Care, the University of Delaware, A.I. duPont Children's Hospital and the Delaware Biotechnology Institute. It also includes the Familial Cancer Registry and tissue-procurement program focused on high-risk patients. The 4,000-square-foot laboratory space at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center is dedicated to basic cancer research.