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March 30, 2023

Naama Geva-Zatorsky, PhD

Technion, Israel Institute of Technology

ICRF Research Career Development Award Recipient

ICRF Research Investigates Role of Microbiota and the Immune System in Oral Cancer

Naama Geva-Zatorsky, PhD, of the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, recipient of the ICRF Lea Weinstock Research Career Development Award, is researching new treatments and new approaches for early detection of oral squamous cell carcinoma.

As April is Oral Cancer Awareness month, can you briefly describe the challenges of detecting and treating oral squamous cell carcinoma ( OSCC)?

The main challenge in oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC) is early detection. The five-year survival rate of patients with early stage OSCC may reach 80 to 90 percent, whereas the five-year survival rate of patients with late stage OSCC is around 40 percent. Unfortunately, about two thirds of patients present a substantial tumor size at the time of diagnosis. Since these tumors are very heterogenous, treatment is complicated and depends on whether the tumor is caused by HPV virus or carcinogens genetics, and the time of diagnosis. There is also a lot of variability in the response to treatment among patients with a similar tumor. Understanding the biology of these tumors and deciphering the role of the oral and tumor microbiome in disease initiation, progression and prognosis is necessary for improving the current treatments and developing new approaches for early detection of OSCC.

This award is crucial for us to pursue our elaborate and thorough research, and I am so grateful for it.

Professor Geva-Zatorsky

Can you elaborate on your current research on the combined role of microbiota (microorganisms that live in and on our body) on  cancer development and on the success of cancer therapy?

Our research focuses on understanding the role of the oral microbiome in the development and prognosis of OSCC. It was shown by us and others that GF (germ-free) mice have significantly less tumor burden than SPF (specific pathogen free, with all the mice microbes) mice after exposure to the same carcinogen. We are working towards uncovering the underlying network of communication between the microbiota, tumor cells and the immune system. We are delving into bacterial functionality on top of bacterial composition.

We are probing how bacteria communicate between themselves and especially with the mammalian host, and does this communication guide the immune system towards a more pro-tumor or anti-tumor path. Last but not least, we are trying to identify microbial biomarkers in the oral cavity that may serve as an indication of whether the patient will respond to immunotherapy or not.

How has ICRF been important in advancing your research?

I encountered ICRF when I opened my lab and was looking for a research grant. The first ICRF grant that I was awarded was the Acceleration Grant—for a fairly risky idea. I am so happy that I was awarded this grant, as it turned out to become a very exciting project, which we are now wrapping up for publication. I was recently awarded the RCDA Grant based on preliminary data from my lab, in collaboration with Dr. Tal Capucha, Professor Adi Rachmiel, and Dr. Omri Emodi of the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, Rambam Medical Care Center, Haifa, on the role of the microbiome on oral cancer. This award is crucial for us to pursue our elaborate and thorough research, and I am so grateful for it. My experience with ICRF has been fabulous, both on the administrative side and on the scientific side. ICRF is a very professional and high-quality organization.  I very much appreciate all the support.

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