Helen F. Graham Cancer Center researchers seek breakthrough for throat cancer survivors in NIH funded study

Robert Witt, M.D., chief of the Multidisciplinary Head and Neck Oncology Clinic at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center, and Swati Pradhan Bhatt, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Delaware, undertake research into the creation of artificial salivary glands at the Center for Translational Cancer Research at Christiana Care. Dr. Witt is the first physician at Christiana Care to achieve the role of principal investigator for an NIH grant through work done at Christiana Care.

A research team at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center at Christiana Care Health System and the Center for Translational Cancer Research performs a key role in a prestigious National Institutes of Health research project grant of $2.5 million to continue groundbreaking work into the creation of artificial salivary glands.

“The purpose of our project is to relieve the debilitating lack of saliva in a patient who has undergone radiation treatments for throat cancer,” says Robert Witt, M.D., chief of the Multidisciplinary Head and Neck Oncology Clinic at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center and the clinician/scientist principal investigator (PI) in the four-year initiative. “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.”

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.

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.

Research project grants, known as R01, are highly competitive. NIH awards them to specified projects that a named investigator or investigators perform. Dr. Witt is the first physician at Christiana Care to achieve the role of PI for an NIH grant through work done at Christiana Care.

“Dr. Witt’s hard work over the last several years has paid off with this NIH RO1 grant, which is an extremely difficult type of grant 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.

Generous support from a patient of Dr. Witt provided the initial resources that enabled the project to advance. “Without that help,” he says, “we would never have reached this major milestone today.”

Helen F. Graham Cancer Center researchers seek breakthrough for throat cancer survivors in NIH funded study

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