From India to Ontario: New insights into head and neck cancers

In Canada, prostate cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer among men. It’s a different story in India, where head and neck cancer is most common.

For more than two decades, Ranju Ralhan (left), a professor of biochemistry at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, has probed the complexities of head and neck cancer in her native India.

She has recently brought her expertise to Ontario to conduct groundbreaking research on this cancer, supported in part by the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR). A molecular biologist, Ralhan first came to York University’s Centre for Research in Mass Spectrometry in 2006 as a visiting professor to work with centre director Professor Michael Siu (right). At the time, Ralhen was funded by the Geneva-based International Union Against Cancer (UICC).

The collaboration with Siu was very fruitful. Together, they identified proteins that express themselves differently in three types of head and neck tissues: normal, pre-cancerous and cancerous.

“These proteins are either not expressed at all, or are expressed at a low level, in the normal tissues,” Ralhan explains. “So they give us an idea of the mechanisms involved in head and neck carcinogenesis.”

The researchers went on to identify potential biomarkers that could be helpful for diagnosing head and neck cancer in its early stages. According to OICR, finding biomarkers to detect these cancers early is critical. More than half of patients with head and neck cancer have advanced disease at the time they are diagnosed. With five-year survival rates at less than 50 per cent, the aim of identifying novel protein markers or therapeutic targets is to improve these rates. 

“Our research produced exciting results,” says Ralhan. “Both of us wanted to continue the collaboration.” However, the UICC grant was for one year only. That’s when OICR stepped in, awarding Ralhan an Opportunity Fund grant to enable her to continue her work in Siu’s lab. He, too, is funded by OICR. One of OICR’s goals is to strengthen Ontario’s research capacity by attracting outstanding scientists like Ralhan to the province.

“By providing me with funding, OICR has helped me to stay in Canada and to continue this work,” says Ralhan.

She and Siu have now verified their earlier findings on novel biomarkers. Building on this work, they have identified several new drug targets.

In August 2008, another OICR grant provided Ralhan with an opportunity to advance this work with Siu. They have been working with cancer researcher Samuel Benchimol (left), a Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Health Research at York University. Benchimol is a pioneer researcher and his work has advanced understanding on the tumour suppressor gene known as p53.

“The OICR funding has been a fantastic opportunity to take this collaborative research forward and to translate our findings for the benefit of patients with head and neck cancer,” says Ralhan, who is interested in remaining in Ontario, where she also collaborates with scientists at Mount Sinai Hospital through a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

It was 1986 when Ralhan first turned her attention to head and neck cancer. She had just returned to India after a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Cancer Institute. At the time, there was little research on the molecular etiology of head and neck cancers.

Head and neck cancer is the sixth most common cancer in the world. In both India and Canada, use of tobacco products is the main cause of head and neck cancer. In India, chewing tobacco is thought to be the bigger culprit, while in Canada, it’s cigarettes. Ralhan wants to know how these different types of tobacco exposure affect etiology, development and prognosis. 

Ralhan’s ties with Indian scientists have brought an added benefit by providing Ontario researchers with tissue from pre-malignant lesions, which are more common in India than in Canada. 

“Through this collaboration, we’ve had access to these very early stages of development of the disease,” says Ralhan. “And this has helped us to identify biomarkers which could be useful to people with head and neck cancers, no matter where they live.”

One of OICR’s goals is to strengthen Ontario’s research capacity by attracting outstanding scientists like Ralhan to the province. 

Submitted to YFile by the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research.