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Dentistry School Receives $5M to Study Saliva Biomarkers

Published: Thursday, August 15, 2013
Last Updated: Thursday, August 15, 2013
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Imagine having a sample of your saliva taken at the dentist's office, and then learning within minutes whether your risk for stomach cancer is higher than normal.

The UCLA School of Dentistry received $5 million in funding from the National Institutes for Health to study biological markers in saliva to attempt to develop a tool for detecting stomach cancer. The study has the potential to create a new paradigm in the field of salivary diagnostics, and it could supply concrete evidence that saliva can be used in the detection of life-threatening diseases, including diabetes and cancers of the pancreas, breasts, ovaries and stomach.

The award comes from the NIH Common Fund, a program established to overcome obstacles in biomedical research that have hindered scientific discovery and its translation into improved human health. The funding awarded to the School of Dentistry comes from the Common Fund's Extracellular RNA Communication initiative, which has awarded leading research institutes around the world a total of $160 million to address the transformative potential of the emerging field of salivary diagnostics.

Leading UCLA's five-year project is Dr. David Wong, a pioneer in the field of salivary diagnostics, the dentistry school's associate dean of research, and the Felix and Mildred Yip Endowed Professor in Dentistry. His team will develop and definitively validate salivary extracellular ribonucleic acid (exRNA) biomarkers for stomach cancer detection.

Conventionally, RNA - which translates genetic code from DNA to make protein - was always believed to reside within cells. However, scientists have recently found that RNA is secreted into extracellular spaces, or spaces outside the cell. Researchers surmised that exRNA acts as an exocrine signal, a signal that travels by way of a duct, to alter the cell traits of target cells. This messaging system occurs in the body's central organs, such as the stomach and heart, and in the extremities, such as the fingers, toes and mouth.

With the Common Fund award, Wong's team will conduct a prospective study to develop a salivary biomarker panel that would definitively validate for stomach cancer detection. Their hope is to capture exRNAs in saliva samples secreted by stomach cancer cells to confirm whether the patient is at risk for stomach cancer.

"Salivary diagnostics is a very dynamic field with a lot of potential and I am excited that our research is advancing toward clinical maturation," Wong said. "The National Institutes for Health's support for developing salivary exRNA biomarkers as part of the Common Fund initiative is a strong statement that saliva is scientifically credible for the detection of systemic disease."

Wong's laboratory, along with collaborators, first discovered salivary exRNA molecules in 2004 and demonstrated their translational utility for detecting oral cancer. Over the next several years, the team developed salivary exRNA biomarkers for a number of oral and systemic diseases, including salivary gland tumors, Sjögren's syndrome and many life-threatening cancers. While there are other diagnostic constituents in saliva, salivary exRNAs are the most reliable markers for disease.

This NIH Common Fund initiative highlights the transformative potential of biological information revealed in exRNAs towards the regulation of health and diseases. Moreover, it echoes President Barrack Obama's Strategy for American Innovation to address the so-called Grand Challenges of the 21st century. High on the list of those challenges is the goal of "early detection of dozens of disease from a saliva sample."

"UCLA is uniquely poised to advance the basic, translational and clinical sciences of salivary diagnostics," said Dr. No-Hee Park, dean of the UCLA School of Dentistry. "A new landscape of saliva biology is on the horizon."

The research will be conducted in collaboration with Dr. Sung Kim, executive vice president and director of gastric cancer at the Samsung Medical Center in Seoul, Korea; Dr. David Chia, a professor in the department of pathology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA; Dr. David Elashoff, a professor in the department of biostatistics at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health; and Dr. Yong Kim, an associate professor in the division of oral biology and medicine at the UCLA School of Dentistry.


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