A new study by researchers at NYU College of Dentistry demonstrates an essential protein, ORAI1, which acts as a gatekeeper for calcium entering cells, promotes the growth of oral cancer and generates pain. Targeting this protein could provide a new approach to treating oral cancer.

The findings are published in Science Signaling in an article titled, “The Ca2+ channel ORAI1 is a regulator of oral cancer growth and nociceptive pain.”

“Oral cancer causes pain associated with cancer progression,” the researchers wrote. “We report here that the function of the Ca2+ channel ORAI1 is an important regulator of oral cancer pain. ORAI1 was highly expressed in tumor samples from patients with oral cancer, and ORAI1 activation caused sustained Ca2+ influx in human oral cancer cells. RNA-seq analysis showed that ORAI1 regulated many genes encoding oral cancer markers such as metalloproteases (MMPs) and pain modulators.”

“Our results show that the ORAI1 channel fuels the growth of oral cancer tumors and produces an abundance of molecules that, once secreted, interact with neurons resulting in an increased sensitivity to pain,” said Ga-Yeon Son, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of molecular pathobiology at NYU College of Dentistry and the study’s first author.

ORAI calcium channels—named after the three sisters in Greek mythology who guarded the gates of heaven at Mount Olympus—play an important role in controlling how much calcium enters cells.

“These calcium channels can be a source of good or bad for cells,” explained Rodrigo Lacruz, PhD, professor of molecular pathobiology at NYU College of Dentistry and the study’s senior author.

“Calcium entering cells is necessary for many good things, but too much calcium for a long time has the opposite effect.”

Calcium channels have been linked to various cancers, especially cancer progression, but few studies have looked at the role of ORAI1 in cancer and pain.

“Calcium influx through ORAI1 channels has been well known to contribute to the regulation of gene expression by activating gene transcription factors in the cells. Notably, our investigation extends its function in regulating gene expression to altering oral cancer pain,” said Son.

The researchers first analyzed tissue samples from human oral cancer tumors and healthy tongues. They found that the ORAI1 gene, which contains instructions for creating the ORAI1 calcium channel, was heavily overexpressed in the tumors but not in healthy tissue.

They then examined human oral cancer cells and found that activating the ORAI1 calcium channel (but not other calcium channels) caused a large influx of calcium into cancer cells. This influx resulted in the increase of a calcium-dependent enzyme called matrix metalloprotease 1 (MMP1) that is secreted outside of cancer cells. MMP1 is abundant in multiple types of cancer, including oral cancer, where its overexpression is associated with metastasis and poor prognosis.

Removing the ORAI1 gene from oral cancer cells changed the course of the disease in animal studies.

“These findings demonstrate an important role for ORAI1 in oral cancer progression and pain, but what is the mechanism? We wondered if MMP1 could be the messenger relaying pain,” said Lacruz.

In collaboration with NYU Pain Research Center scientists Rajesh Khanna, PhD, and Yi Ye, PhD, the team looked at the levels of MMP1 expressed in the fluid surrounding oral cancer cells and saw that cells lacking the ORAI1 gene secreted less MMP1 into the surrounding fluid. They combined the fluid with neurons from the trigeminal ganglia and the fluid from cancer cells without the ORAI1 gene did not elicit a strong response from the neurons, but the MMP1-rich fluid from cells with ORAI1 evoked an increase in action potentials, the necessary signal for pain transmission.

“This gives us evidence that an abundance of MMP1 may generate increased sensitivity to pain,” said Lacruz.

Several FDA-approved drugs block the ORAI1 calcium channel, but they have not yet been tested in oral cancer. In future studies, the researchers will see whether nanoparticles can be loaded with an ORAI-blocking drug and precisely delivered into the tongues of animal models to stop oral cancer progression and pain.

“Ultimately, our hope is that targeting the ORAI1 channel in oral cancer can prevent or delay the progression from oral epithelial dysplasia to oral cancer tumors and concurrently alleviate the pain burden experienced by oral cancer patients,” added Son.

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