By: Rikki Clark, Acadia University
Head and neck cancers are serious and potentially life-threatening conditions that affect many people around the world. Each year, 630,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer and over half will die from it. The 5-year survival rate remains below 50% in much of the world, in part because there are currently very few publicly funded screening programs to catch these cancers early.
But the devastating impact of head and neck cancers goes beyond the statistics. People who survive oral cancer can experience many physical symptoms including speech impairment and facial disfigurement. Despite these cancers occurring in a part of the body that is easily accessible for examination, they are often not identified until it is late-stage and the risk of morbidity and mortality greatly increases, as does the cost of treatment.
Researchers like Dr. Leigha Rock are working towards finding better ways to prevent, diagnose and treat oral cancers. As someone who began her career as a dental hygienist before pursuing a Bachelor of Dental Science, Dr. Rock has seen first-hand the devastating effects of this cancer. Now a full-time researcher in Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Dentistry and Scientist with the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute, Dr. Rock aims to develop new biomarkers for early detection, leading to earlier diagnosis and treatment.
It was during her Bachelor of Dental Science studies that Dr. Rock first encountered biostatistics and research design, igniting her love affair with research, and confirming her commitment to focus on oral disease. To achieve that dream, she enrolled in a Master’s level program to enhance her understanding of and experience with biochemistry and molecular biology. “I had the immense good fortune of beginning a studentship with the BC Oral Cancer Prevention Program at the British Columbia Cancer Research Institute,” says Dr. Rock. She notes that over the six years of her studentship, she received intense and exemplary training both in clinical settings with patients and in laboratory settings working with molecular techniques.
Dr. Rock’s current research focuses on identifying molecular and genetic biomarkers of oral cancer that will aid earlier detection of the disease – with the goal of using those biomarkers to create targeted or ‘personalized’ therapies which can increase survival rates and improve quality of life. Dr. Rock has recently begun a new collaboration with another BHCRI member, Dr. Morgan Langille exploring the microbiome for biomarkers to indicate the presence of oral cancer. “Our initial findings show that bacteria differed in oral precancerous lesions that progressed to cancer, compared to those that did not”, explains Dr. Rock.
Straddling the border between the clinical world of patient care and the laboratory world of research provides Dr. Rock with a deep understanding of the disease and how diagnostic tools and treatments developed in the lab can translate into clinical help for patients facing oral cancer.
Dr. Rock is passionate about the importance of research in improving the lives of people with oral cancer. As she continues to explore new biomarkers for this disease and pursues ways to translate her findings into more effective screening and treatment techniques, her research has the potential to bring us one step closer to improving the outlook for people with oral cancer and increasing their chances of survival.
Rikki Clark was the recipient of a 2022 BHCRI Summer studentship and is a volunteer writer with BHCRI