Student Spotlight: Two Boston University Students’ Research Victories Highlight Oral Cancer
The International Association for Dental, Oral, and Craniofacial Research (IADR) recently announced the 2023 winners of its Hatton Competition, crowning two Boston University students as first-place winners.
Kisa Iqbal ENDO 25 and Emily Fisher CAMED 27 received first place in the junior and senior categories, respectively, at the 2023 IADR Hatton Competition, which was held in Bogota, Colombia, in June 2023. Earlier in the year, Iqbal and Fisher had secured second-place wins in the same categories at the 2023 American Association for Dental, Oral & Craniofacial Research (AADOCR) Hatton Competition in Portland, Oregon.
Established in 1953 in honor of IADR’s 10th President Edward H. Hatton, the Hatton Competition was designed to give students and new investigators the valuable experience of presenting their research to a national and international audience in the annual general sessions.
Iqbal said she is ecstatic about her research project victory.
“Our celebrations were doubled because when you see your colleagues win, then you feel even more satisfaction and pride for the school – that was amazing,” Iqbal said. “When we both had won at IADR, we were literally sitting next to each other and just excitement was amplified because it’s great when you win, but when your friend wins as well, it just makes it 20 times better.”
Fisher said she is thrilled that their oral cancer research is highlighting GSDM’s research efforts on an international level.
“It just goes to show you how [prevalent] oral cancer is, and how we really do need specific treatments for it, so that we can help patients,” Fisher said.
Dr. Maria Kukuruzinska, GSDM associate dean for research and professor of translational dental medicine, said the Hatton Competitions at AADOCR and IADR are incredible opportunities for students to present their findings to new audiences, who may not be as well-versed in the research areas. Students have the valuable educational experience of articulating their research in an approachable, comprehensive manner, ultimately helping more people understand the importance of oral cancer research.
Kukuruzinska said Iqbal and Fisher are deeply passionate about their work, and their enthusiasm shined in their competition presentations.
“They are both really fantastic and they’re terrific advocates for the projects, and we are very lucky to have them,” Kukuruzinska said. “It’s very exciting.”
Kisa Iqbal is the presenter and first author of the abstract “LSD1-Induced Signaling Mechanisms Inhibition Sensitizes Oral Cancer for Chemotherapy and Immunotherapy”. The study was performed related to one of the projects at Bais lab, Translational Dental Medicine, GSDM, with the help of other co-authors. The detailed list of co-authors includes Kisa Iqbal, Guoxian Wei, Amit Charkraborty, Thabet Alhousami, Faiza Ali, Tiya Wang, Chumki Choudhury, Sami Chogle, Vikas Kumar, and Manish V. Bais.
In Iqbal’s research presentation, “LSD1-Induced Signaling Mechanisms Inhibition Sensitizes Oral Cancer for Chemotherapy and Immunotherapy,” she shared the investigation that she is doing under the mentorship of Dr. Manish Bais into how one specific protein, lysine specific demethylase 1 (LSD1), can help with oral cancer treatment and oral cancer prevention in the pre-cancer stage. Once oral cancer progresses past the pre-cancer stage, it makes it significantly harder to treat. The goal of the research is to focus on pre-cancer and prevent progression.
“The protein we’re working on has an important role in oral cancer progression,” Iqbal said. “We have a lot of promising results suggesting that if we target this protein and understand how it works in the body, we can potentially create a treatment that targets it.”
Iqbal said research in LSD1 is incredibly useful for clinicians and fellow researchers because it is being evaluated for application in chemotherapy and immunotherapy.
“LSD1 plays an important role in normal embryo development,” Iqbal said. “However, it can become inappropriately unregulated. Blocking its function using small molecule inhibitors can promote anti-tumor immunity.”
Kukuruzinska said Iqbal’s research is examining a unique perspective of how non-mutational changes can actually drive oral cancer, initiation, and progression.
“It’s interesting because it’s not genetic change; it’s not really a classical understanding of how tobacco or alcohol can impact this disease, but it really has more to do with the inner workings of the cellular metabolism and cellular activities, but not on a genetic level but more the non-mutational reprogramming of cells,” Kukuruzinska said. “They have done some very nice work with mouse models and also looking at the underlying molecular basis of what’s happening when lysine specific demethylase 1 is apparently expressed.”
Emily Fisher is thepresenter and first author of the abstract “Wnt/β-Catenin Epigenetic Modifications Drive Age-Dependent Oral Squamous Cell Carcinoma Evolution.” The study was performed related to one of the projects at Kukuruzinska’s lab, Translational Dental Medicine, GSDM, with the help of other co-authors. The detailed list of co-authors includes Emily Fisher, Anthony Spinella, Xaralabos (Bob) Varelas, Manish V. Bais, and Maria Kukuruzinska.
Fisher wanted to use a translational approach to investigate how therapeutics can potentially be used for cancer treatment, which led her to Kukuruzinska’s lab. Her research presentation, “Wnt/β-Catenin Epigenetic Modifications Drive Age-Dependent Oral Squamous Cell Carcinoma Evolution,” documented differences between young and old mice non-mutational DNA reprogramming within the signaling pathway of Wnt/β-Catenin, which is responsible for tumor growth in HPV negative oral squamous cell carcinoma.
Typically, oral cancer research on drug compounds uses young mice that mirror humans in their twenties or thirties. However, the median age of oral-cancer diagnosis is 60 years old. According to Fisher, using older mice in experimentation may help researchers understand how age affects the reaction to medication and how to best adjust treatment protocols.
“There are a lot of big findings that we’ve shown, but I think the number one finding is that old mice and old humans, older organisms with this cancer, respond differently, and they’re not responding in the same manner that we are seeing in young [people],” Fisher said. “If you can really understand the biology of what’s going on in these older patients, then you can really tailor a drug to make it more responsive for those people of interest.”
Kukuruzinska said that Fisher has made great inroads into understanding how aging can impact oral cancer.
“At the same time, in fact, our colleagues in biochemistry have been also studying aging more in terms of understanding what are the changes in the immune system with progression of age,” Kukuruzinska said. “So, this is very exciting, and Emily is great at projecting some of the ideas.”
Kukuruzinska said she is intrigued to how these two research projects will continue to investigate how oral cancer can best be prevented and treated.
“We want our school to be a scholarly institution that [does] not just provide fantastic clinical care,” Kukuruzinska said. “One of the huge things that comes out of this is that working as teams between our scientists, clinicians, and residents leads to improved overall knowledge about this disease.”