Gift will enable dental college to drill deeper into oral cancer research

UNMC hopes to help improve the lives of people in Nebraska and beyond.

The symptoms are often subtle: A sore in your mouth that doesn’t heal; difficulty in chewing, swallowing or moving your tongue; persistent pain in your mouth; or a feeling that something is caught in your throat. These are just a few signs of oral cancer, the sixth most common cancer in the United States.

This year, more than 40,000 people will develop oral cancer, which will result in about 13,000 deaths in the United States. As an alarming number of both younger and older patients are being diagnosed, the need for research in preventing, detecting and treating oral cancer is imperative.

Many causes are linked to oral cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the No. 1 cause of oral cancer is smoking, and the mortality rate of oral cancer in smokers is 15 to 30 times higher than nonsmokers. Alcohol use is another contributing factor to the disease.

In recent years, the human papillomavirus (HPV) has also caught the attention of researchers who are finding a high incidence of HPV-driven cancers of the tonsils, base of the tongue and pharynx.

Dr. Peter Giannini, oral pathologist and associate professor at UNMC’s College of Dentistry, is pursuing a possible link between certain types of oral cancer and HPV. He said if the cancer is caught early, the prognosis is better if it is HPV-driven.

“I hope our research leads to early diagnosis, less destructive forms of treatment and an improved quality of life,” he said.

Research into this deadly disease is a central focus of the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Dentistry. A recent gift contribution from Ameritas Group, a division of American Life Insurance Corp., will help to advance these research efforts.

The company established a $250,000 permanent endowment at the University of Nebraska Foundation to provide annual support for the College of Dentistry’s research on preventing, detecting and treating oral cancer.

“This gift is another outstanding example of Ameritas’ strong commitment to improving education at the College of Dentistry and improving the health of people in Nebraska and beyond,” said Dr. John Reinhardt, dean of the dental college. “We’re delighted to accept this generous support, which will significantly strengthen our developing oral cancer research and educational activities.”

Ken VanCleave, president of Ameritas Group, said the company is proud to have the opportunity to partner with UNMC’s College of Dentistry for such a vital cause.

“This is a natural partnership,” he said. “We completely support the college’s research, and have no doubt that our investment in this program will lead to improvements in oral cancer prevention and treatment.”

Dr. Jeffrey Payne, associate dean for research at the dental college, said the gift will improve the college’s ability to further research.

“The college currently has a very strong basic science research program in cellular signaling in cancer,” Payne said. “The Ameritas endowment will enable the college to expand its oral cancer research program by facilitating translation of basic science discoveries to clinical application.”

This gift from Ameritas marks 10 years of charitable support to the UNMC College of Dentistry. Past gifts have provided significant resources for the college’s annual Children’s Dental Day, rural externships for dental students across Nebraska, pre-clinic lab renovations, faculty and student research, and the dental hygiene department’s sealant program.

The gift also supports the university’s current fundraising initiative, the Campaign for Nebraska: Unlimited Possibilities, and one of the College of Dentistry’s campaign goals to strengthen its oral cancer programs.

To learn more about supporting the College of Dentistry, contact Susan Norby, director of development, at 402-458-1183 or 800-432-3216.

Information about giving is also available at

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