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UTHealth oral surgeon is the second in US with active R01 grant funding

Photo of Dr. Simon Young
Simon Young, DDS, MD, PhD, with UTHealth School of Dentistry is the fourth-ever oral surgeon to receive a R01 grant from the NIH. (Photo by Brian Schnupp.)

The Young Laboratory at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) has been awarded a nearly $3 million research project grant (R01) from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue exploration of biomaterial-facilitated immunotherapy for treatment-resistant oral cancers.

With this grant, Simon Young, DDS, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the Bernard and Gloria Pepper Katz Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery (OMS) at UTHealth School of Dentistry, becomes just the fourth-ever oral surgeon to receive an R01 grant from the NIH, one of two oral surgeons in the United States with active R01 funding, and the first from UTHealth.

An R01 grant is the highest offered grant from the NIH. Funding in this particular category is extremely competitive.

The project, titled “SynerGel: A novel tumor microenvironment-modulating hydrogel for local immunotherapy,” will be split between Young, the project’s primary investigator; Jeffrey Hartgerink, PhD, at Rice University; Andrew Sikora, MD, PhD, at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center; and Akdes Harmanci, PhD, at Baylor College of Medicine.

“As a young surgeon-scientist and early-stage investigator, R01 grant funding like this is a dream come true — I feel as though my entire career up to this point has been focused on achieving this milestone,” said Young. “I’m incredibly grateful to be given this funding opportunity by the NIDCR to work on developing our biomaterials-based intratumoral immunotherapy technology. The OMS Foundation and NIDCR were there to support us at the very beginning when Jeff Hartgerink and I were just formulating this new idea.”

Immunotherapy has become an emerging standard of care for many different kinds of cancer. Young is working to improve it through a biomaterials-based, intratumoral delivery approach that is highly customizable because of the modular nature of the amino acid building blocks of the peptide hydrogel being used.

The Young Lab plans to investigate the mechanisms driving the effectiveness of a novel immunotherapy platform technology, SynerGel, for head and neck cancer, and determine how it can be used in combination with standard-of-care radiation therapy to reduce treatment toxicity. SynerGel, which is peptide-based, is an injectable, biomaterial-based platform for intratumoral drug delivery created by Young, Hartgerink, and Sikora.

The aim of the research is to enhance understanding of how both tumor and immune cells in the tumor environment can be manipulated to produce a strong anti-tumor effect while reducing the side effects of treatment.

This research marks the continued progress of SynerGel. Young, Hartgerink, and Sikora published a paper on their hydrogel in the February edition of ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering, reporting an advance on their previous development of the original drug-hydrogel combination, STINGel, from 2018.

“Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been extremely lucky to be surrounded by an incredibly supportive OMS department and numerous bright minds in both my and collaborators’ labs who have dedicated themselves to this work. I couldn’t be happier right now and am truly excited to see how we can look at ways on improving care for oral cancer patients in the future,” Young said.

Research to date has been supported by grants from the OMS Foundation, Hinds Academy Foundation, NIDCR, Welch Foundation, National Science Foundation, and Mexican National Council for Science and Technology.

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