ORAI1 Fuels Oral Cancers and Generates Pain

Oral Cancer

An essential protein that acts as a gatekeeper for calcium entering cells promotes the growth of oral cancer and generates pain, according to a new study published in Science Signaling led by researchers at NYU College of Dentistry. 

Targeting this protein—the ORAI1 calcium channel—could provide a new approach to treating oral cancer, which causes persistent pain that worsens as it progresses. 

“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, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Molecular Pathobiology at NYU College of Dentistry and the study’s first author. 

The keepers of the gates of heaven

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

“These calcium channels can be a source of good or bad for cells,” said Rodrigo Lacruz, 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.

Read the full press release.