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Researcher Studies a New Weapon in the Fight Against Oral Cancer

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Written by Adam Zewe

Conventional cancer therapies are costly and often cause harmful side effects. Could an existing diabetes drug hold the answer to a more affordable and safer treatment? Assistant Professor Abraham Schneider, DDS, PhD, is exploring the possibilities.

Dr. Schneider and his collaborators at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy recently received a five-year, $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for their project, "Role of OCT-3 on metformin action in oral carcinogenesis." Schneider, along with School of Pharmacy Assistant Professors Yan Shu, MD, PhD, and Maureen Kane, PhD, is researching whether the diabetes drug metformin can be used to treat oral cancer.

Scientists have investigated the potential cancer-fighting abilities of metformin, a first-line, FDA-approved diabetes drug currently prescribed to more than 100 million people worldwide, for the last decade. Schneider and collaborators at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research published a paper showing that metformin can prevent premalignant oral lesions from becoming cancerous in an experimental model. Now, he and his collaborators at UMB are trying to understand the mechanism that enables that process.

Metformin, which has few side effects, treats diabetes mainly by working at the cellular level within liver cells. It is able to enter those cells due to a drug transporter known as organic cation transporter-1 (OCT-1). Schneider is studying whether similar transporters, such as OCT-3, play a role in metformin's ability to fight oral cancer. "Think of this drug transporter as the port of entry into the cell. If that entry is impaired or absent, metformin will not be able to get in, so it will not affect the premalignant or cancer cells at all," states Schneider.

As part of the study, the researchers will use mass spectrometry imaging to determine if metformin is able to enter oral cancer cells where OCT-3 is present and inhibit the growth of lesions. The Schneider lab has previously shown that high levels of OCT-3 exist in human premalignant oral lesions, compared to more advanced cancerous lesions. If this transporter enables metformin to enter premalignant cells, the drug could potentially prevent the development of oral cancer.

Clinicians could eventually use the transporter as a biomarker to determine whether a patient is a candidate for metformin treatment. "This idea goes back to personalized oncology. One size does not fit all in the case of cancer treatment," says Schneider.


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