City Tech Addresses Oral Cancer Ignorance by Developing New Ways of Increasing Awareness

City Tech’s oral cancer awareness team includes, from left: Dr. Gwen Cohen-Brown (dental hygiene), Dr. Boris Gelman (physics), Dr. Laina Karthikeyan and Dr. Sanjoy Chakraborty (biological sciences) and Dr. Pamela Brown, Dean of Arts and Sciences.

City Tech’s oral cancer awareness team includes, from left: Dr. Gwen Cohen-Brown (dental hygiene), Dr. Boris Gelman (physics), Dr. Laina Karthikeyan and Dr. Sanjoy Chakraborty (biological sciences) and Dr. Pamela Brown, Dean of Arts and Sciences.

Brooklyn, NY — With approximately 30,000 cases of oral cancer diagnosed each year, the disease is more prevalent than melanoma. So why is it that only 20 percent of dental offices perform oral cancer screenings on their patients?

“If your dentist does not routinely examine your mouth for oral cancer, it may be time to find a new dentist,” says New York City College of Technology (City Tech) Dental Hygiene Professor Gwen Cohen-Brown, DDS. “Oral cancer screening saves lives and should be a routine part of your annual dental visit. It is painless and can easily be completed in a few minutes.”

A pilot project is in the works at the College with the goal of teaching the dangers of oral cancer and how to screen for it to City Tech students majoring in the health professions. Students enrolling this coming fall in the oral pathology course offered by the School of Professional Studies and nutrition, anatomy and physiology, and physics courses in the School of Arts and Sciences will benefit from case studies and collaborative work related to oral cancer awareness.

The project is being led by Biological Sciences Professor Laina Karthikeyan, and includes, in addition to Dr. Cohen-Brown, Physics Professor Boris Gelman and Biological Sciences Professor Sanjoy Chakraborty. All four were invited to participate in the 2010 Summer Institute offered by the National Science Foundation’s Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER), which subsequently funded the project.

Their initiative builds on the annual, free oral cancer screenings offered on campus by City Tech’s dental hygiene department, in collaboration with the Russian Dental Association. During the event, dental hygiene students review a patient’s medical and basic dental history, perform an initial clinical exam and then present the case to the faculty or medical personnel involved.

Dr. Pamela Brown, City Tech’s dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, explains the project’s purpose. “It will improve science education by connecting course content in physics and biology with the engaging and important topic of oral cancer awareness, a real-world problem.”

“It’s much more relevant for students to be learning something if they know they’re going to be able to apply it,” Dr. Cohen-Brown notes.

To screen for oral cancer, the dentist or dental hygienist inspects and palpates (touches) the patient’s mouth and lips for clinical signs and symptoms. “It’s a very disfiguring cancer, but if caught early it can be treated,” Dr. Cohen-Brown says. “Unfortunately, half of all oral cancers are diagnosed after they have already spread.”

According to the American Cancer Society, regular dental checkups including an exam of the entire mouth and upper throat are important in early detection. The Oral Cancer Foundation estimates more than 8,000 deaths yearly from these cancers, and non-smokers under 50 are the fastest growing segment of the oral cancer population. Though millions of Americans quit smoking, cancers are increasing as ex-smokers substitute chewing tobacco for cigarettes. A synergism between smoking and alcohol use compounds the danger.

City Tech’s biological sciences department will play a pivotal role in the SENCER project, addressing pathology, exposure to radiation, nutrition, general physics and dental hygiene. Says Dr. Karthikeyan, “The role of diet and nutrition in the etiology and prevention of oral diseases will be incorporated into the nutrition course. With connections to molecular biology, biochemistry and physiology, nutrition is one of the truly integrative sciences.”

Only a handful of dental practitioners now apply diet and nutrition principles to their practices, however. Dr. Karthikeyan would like City Tech’s students to help change that situation. “It is critical that the concepts and principles of biology move from being classroom content to being knowledge that is applied in the care of patients,” she says.

While the connection between oral cancer awareness and physics may seem tenuous, Dr. Gelman says, “The SENCER people were very supportive, because we were coming in from a different angle.” He explains that several medical technologies involved in oral cancer screening and treatment are based on physics principles, for example, x-rays and optical screening. “In physics courses we’ll explore both the theoretical and the practical laboratory aspects of these machines, which ultimately are based on physics and engineering techniques. Students will gain deeper understanding of basic physics principles.”

The City Tech team agrees that the SENCER Summer Institute had an impact on how it views the College’s science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curriculum and students. Dr. Gelman relished “seeing how similar cross-curriculum collaboration is done in different universities, and discussing course development and assessment in physics and technology-related disciplines.”

“This project will lead to fostering SENCER ideals of civic engagement in the education of STEM majors,” asserts Dr. Karthikeyan, “and strengthen that curriculum through networking with other faculty, team building, engaging with innovative pedagogies, undergraduate research and improved assessment strategies.”

The SENCER grant was awarded to only 20 colleges nationwide. City Tech’s work under this grant extends through 2011. Other SENCER projects at the College include investigation of nosocomial infections (NI) contracted by patients at health care facilities.

The largest public college of technology in New York State, New York City College of Technology of The City University of New York enrolls 15,400 students in 62 baccalaureate, associate and specialized certificate programs. An additional 16,000 students annually enroll in continuing education and workforce development programs. Located at 300 Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn, City Tech is at the MetroTech Center academic and commercial complex, convenient to public transportation.