Curbing pain for oral cancer patients is goal of $144,000 grant to UT Health Science Center researcher

SAN ANTONIO (Aug. 11, 2015) ― Pain is the first and most significant sign of oral cancer. Patients experience pain even when the tumor is still quite small.

Shivani Ruparel, Ph.D., from the UT Health Science Center San Antonio, has received a grant for $144,000 from the American Cancer Society to study oral cancer pain. The grant is one of 100 national research and training grants totaling more than $45.6 million awarded by the ACS this year.

“Pain is the very first and top symptom among 70 percent to 80 percent of oral cancer patients,” said Dr. Ruparel, an assistant professor in the Department of Endodontics, part of the School of Dentistry. Through her research, Dr. Ruparel hopes to find a way to block the pain at the site of the tumor.

“Current treatments for oral cancer pain are not very effective and there are problems with side effects,” she said. “What is worse is that oral cancer patients become tolerant to the dosage of the current pain medications very quickly, and therefore, require a lot more of it to achieve relief,” she said.

To better treat oral cancer pain, Dr. Ruparel said, “It is crucial to understand how oral cancer produces pain.” Her research focuses on studying cancer pain mechanisms in order to develop novel treatment options.

Blocking pain at its source

In previous research, Dr. Ruparel showed that oral cancer tumors release certain fat molecules that act as messengers of pain. After being released, they enter a pain-sensing channel in the surrounding nerves. Once received, the message of pain is transmitted through the nervous system to the brain.

Using the funds provided by the American Cancer Society, Dr. Ruparel will investigate the mechanism by which these fat molecules are produced by human oral cancer cells and test novel and Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved drugs that may act to inhibit the production of these molecules to minimize the pain produced by the tumor.

“The goal is to develop analgesics that are equally or more effective than current medications but with much fewer side effects, to significantly improve the quality of life for oral cancer patients,” Dr. Ruparel added. She and her team will conduct the research using a rodent model. If successful, the concept will be tested in humans.

The American Cancer Society is the largest non-government, non-for-profit funding source of cancer research in the U.S. The ACS currently funds nearly $1.2 million in research grants at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio. The ACS has supported UT Health Science Center researchers since 1969 with 91 grants totaling more than $14 million. Beyond research, the ACS also provides free programs and services to cancer patients and their caregivers. For more information about the ACS, please visit


The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, one of the country’s leading health sciences universities, ranks in the top 13 percent of academic institutions receiving National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding. The university’s schools of medicine, nursing, dentistry, health professions and graduate biomedical sciences have produced more than 31,000 graduates. The $787.7 million operating budget supports eight campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. For more information on the many ways “We make lives better®,” visit

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