Asian female doctor sitting in a doctor's office with a male, white-haired man

Dr. Chi Viet is an attending surgeon in the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery and the principal investigator for the grant

Loma Linda University School of Dentistry has been awarded a $4 million National Cancer Institute (NCI) R01 grant to study oral pre-cancer and its progression to oral cancer. The research will focus on using artificial intelligence (AI) to develop a multi-omic biomarker to identify patients with oral pre-cancer who are at the highest risk of developing cancer.  

Chi Viet, DDS, MD, PhD, FACS, associate professor and attending surgeon in the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery and the principal investigator for the grant, says one person dies of oral cancer every hour in the U.S.

“There has not been any significant improvement in oral cancer treatment or survival in past decades,” Viet said. “Patients suffer through highly disfiguring surgery and chemoradiation but are faced with terrible odds of beating their cancer.”  

Viet and her team have created a research program that investigates treatment strategies for oral cancer. Viet has worked to obtain more than $9 million in research funding to Loma Linda University Health. The research is highly translational, enrolling oral cancer patients treated by her and her colleagues directly into clinical studies performed by the lab.  

One way to increase survival rates is by diagnosing cancer at its earliest stages. Currently, about 10% of people have oral lesions that can appear as white or red lesions. A proportion of these lesions are pre-cancerous and often lead to a cancer diagnosis. Viet’s research uses a patient’s molecular signature — a combination of histologic and epigenetic marks — to identify cancer progression.  

Viet’s goal is to improve outcomes by enrolling patients in her own surgical practice to understand the molecular mechanisms driving oral cancer. Nationally, only 0.7% of surgeons are funded by NIH, of which only a proportion are awarded R01 grants, Viet said. 

This award of an R01 grant is one of multiple grants LLU has received to study oral cancer and another step toward the Loma Linda University Cancer Center’s goal of becoming designated as an NCI Comprehensive Cancer Center.