Multi-million-dollar grant will investigate the impact of head and neck cancer treatment

Pitt Nursing and Medicine assistant professor Marci Lee Nilsen, Ph.D., RN, CHPN, has received an NIH/NCI R37 MERIT award for $3,107,742 to research the effects of head and neck cancer treatment. Her grant entitled “Radiation-Induced Fibrosis and Co-occurring Adverse Treatment-Related Effects in Head and Neck Cancer Survivors” will begin July 1st.

“As a nurse, I have seen first-hand the debilitating effect fibrosis and associated physical changes have on head and neck cancer survivors,” said Nilsen. “This grant will allow us to understand better how fibrosis and treatment-related effects develop over time and to identify biomarkers to determine head and neck cancer survivors at risk for fibrosis before clinical signs occur.”

Treatment for head and neck cancer involves intense multimodal therapy, contributing to short- and long-term side effects. Many patients will undergo radiation, and while it effectively eliminates tumor cells, radiation can result in soft tissue damage and fibrosis. These changes, including radiation-induced fibrosis, contribute to physical and psychosocial sequelae that can impact the quality of life, heighten distress, and increase non-cancer mortality.

Dr. Nilsen said understanding what causes radiation-induced fibrosis and its effects is lacking and therefore prohibits the development of tailored interventions to improve patient quality of life and reduce morbidity. Her research that this grant will help fund aims to fix that.

“We will be able to move the science forward toward mitigating the severity of these debilitating issues,” said Nilsen. Dr. Nilsen is also faculty within the School of Medicine, Department of Otolaryngology, where she directs their effects in head and neck cancer survivorship care.