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Crit Rev Oral Biol Med. 2000;11(1):92-122.

Biomarkers and molecular epidemiology and chemoprevention of oral carcinogenesis.

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  • 1Howard University, College of Dentistry, Department of Oral Maxillofacial Pathology, Washington, DC 20059, USA.


Chemopreventives are chemicals that prevent the formation of cancers such as oral cancer. They can take the form of nutrients or synthetic molecules, and their fundamental characteristic is that they do not produce disease processes that would result in debilitating symptoms. Current evidence indicates that they function by modifying the oxidative state of transforming cells. Biomarkers can take the form of genetic and molecular indicators, which characterize the function of chemopreventives and cancer processes such as oral carcinogenesis. Biomarkers cannot provide all the required information for risk assessment or possible activity of the chemopreventives. Other methods, such as epidemiological analyses and techniques, must be used to enhance our understanding of the risk for oral cancer in human populations. One common epidemiologic method, the questionnaire, helps to determine the use and carcinogenic potential of tobacco and alcohol during oral carcinogenesis. Genetic and molecular changes in human patient populations may result in a reduction in the number and function of tumor suppressor genes. If these changes are to be assessed, the tissues (e.g., buccal mucosa) must be accessible and harvested in a reliable and consistent manner for the acquisition of DNA, mRNA, and protein. Oral tissues provide sufficient quantities of these molecules and, under stringent conditions, the quality required for the isolation of these molecular constituents. In conjunction with epidemiologic techniques, various genotypic polymorphisms, such as glutathione-S-transferase (GSTM1) or cytochrome P450 (CYP450A1), have indicated a loss in carcinogen detoxification or the processing of internal growth control signals. Biomarkers are composed of a large diverse group of genetic and molecular structures. Some of these biomarkers are indicators for programmed cell death (PCD), while others describe malignant tumor growth. Many of these classes of molecules are oxidative-responsive (e.g., tumor suppressor p53, Bcl-2, growth factors, immune-derived proteins, and death-inducing molecules) and induce PCD by triggering a cascade of cysteine proteases and regulators (e.g., caspases, death receptors). This pathway results in cell-cycle alterations and DNA fragmentation. It is hoped that a detailed knowledge of the processes involved in malignant transformation will better define the biomarker-screening tools for oral cancer. These tools will enhance our ability to predict the incidence of cancer, detect early malignant change, and quantitate chemoprevention during oral carcinogenesis. Chemopreventives such as the retinoids have already demonstrated their ability to suppress potential malignant changes in pre-malignant oral leukoplakias and decrease the incidence of second head-and-neck cancer primaries. It is our hope that this review will increase investigators' interest in developing new screening and detection systems for oral cancer.

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