Researchers at the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center and the School of Dentistry have identified a new metric to articulate the relationship between nerve density and oral cancer. The study, published in Clinical Cancer Research, investigated normalised nerve density to translate previous mechanistic studies into a context that could be used in the clinic.

The team looked at the relationship between the density of nerves within a tumour and the tumour’s growth. The oral cavity has several regions, each with different functions. Given these variations, looking at nerve density of the tumour without considering the normal innervation of the different areas in the oral cavity and each individual’s variation to assess whether a tumour is aggressive, leaves an inaccurate picture.

To account for this, the team created a standardised metric for nerve density to clarify the variation in distribution of nerves in the oral cavity, called normalised nerve density, and showed its importance in tumour progression.

“We showed that tumours with high normalised nerve density seem to be associated with poor survival for patients with tongue cancer, which is the most common type of oral cancer,” Dr Nisha D’Silva explained.

They used adjacent tissue to compare and determine a “normalised” density for different regions in the oral cavity.

Additionally, the team explored the use of artificial intelligence to measure normalised nerve density, which could facilitate the use of this metric in clinical practice.

If researchers can figure out which cancers will behave more aggressively from the outset, then they could treat the tumours more aggressively from the beginning. Normalised nerve density provides researchers with another data point to determine the best course of treatment.