Tools designed to improve the treatment of head and neck cancer

20 November 2023

A University of Kentucky (UK) researcher is working to develop new techniques for radiation treatment to improve survival rates of patients with a specific type of cancer.

Caigang Zhu is an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University Kentucky Stanley and Karen Pigman College of Engineering. He is also a member of the Molecular and Cellular Oncology Research Program at the UK Markey Cancer Center.

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded Zhu a prestigious R01 grant of $2m over five years to develop optical metabolic spectroscopy and imaging tools.

Zhu is targeting head and neck squamous cell cancer. Squamous cells line the body's skin, mucous membranes and other tissues, including the mouth, throat and voice box.

Zhu said, “Cellular metabolism is highly dynamic and strongly influenced by its local vascular microenvironment, gaining a systems-level view of tumour metabolism and vasculature in vivo is essential in understanding many critical cancer biology question.”

Currently, there are few techniques to help oncologists answer those questions. Zhu’s Spectroscopic Imaging Laboratory, in the Pigman College of Engineering and supported by Markey, hopes to make a difference.

Researchers in the lab will develop a new device to quickly measure tumour properties using a special fibre and smart techniques to map the blood vessels connected to them.

Zhu explained, “The team will then use this technology to address the critical challenge of head and neck squamous cell cancer that is resistant to radiation.

“Our goal is to make the new technologies easy to access, easy to use and systematic, which are all critical to maximising its accessibility for cancer research.”

Treatment for head and neck cancer may involve surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy or a combination of these approaches.

Zhu and his team will integrate the new techniques with state-of-the-art stable isotope-resolved metabolomics — an approach that can reveal how different substances are processed and transformed in the body.

Through this research, Zhu aims to understand better why some cancers are resistant to radiation and identify therapeutic targets related to tumour metabolism. He hopes the findings will also be applicable in studying other types of cancers.