Centre for Cancer Biomarkers CCBIO

Oral cancer

Research at Bergen Oral Cancer Research Group (BOCG) lead by professor Johannessen aims to identify the key molecules of importance for oral cancer development, in order to identify patients who risk developing oral cancer from premalignant lesions, and to reveal potential targets for more efficient, individualized therapy of oral cancer.


Anne Christine Johannessen in her office.
Ingvild Melien

The focus is on understanding the cancer-host interactions, particularly the interaction between the surface epithelium and the underlying connective tissue, and their role in the aggressive behavior of oral cancer. For that purpose, the team has established human tissue-based 3D cell culture models of normal mucosa and oral cancer tissue. These models have opened up for further testing of the role of potential biomarkers that have been identified on patient biopsy material.

Using patient material, the 3D models and animal models, the group has shown the crucial role played by carcicoma-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) on oral carcinoma development and progression, and characterised at the molecular level how CAFs are actively involved in carcinoma development and invasion. The group has also identified 16 diagnostic biomarkers implicated in the regulation of cell cycle, genomic stability, chromatin maintenance, and stem cell regulation and developed a cancer index system of diagnostic and prognostic value based on this panel of molecular biomarkers. This study validated the use of a molecular-based analysis on two geographically distinct patient cohorts consisting of oral tissue biopsies donated by patients from the United Kingdom and Norway. The team is now working to expand this cancer index to include molecules from connective tissue and to validate it in the newly formed multi-center platform for biomarker testing in oral cancer.

Oral cancer is a burden of disease especially in the Sub-Saharan and Indian Subcontinent. For that reason, international, multi-center studies on biomarkers in oral cancer are important. The team is part of a collaborative network which includes universities and health institutions in Norway, UK, Romania, India, Nepal and Sudan.


2016 Spring Interview

Professor Johannessen is the leader of the Bergen Oral Cancer Research Group, BOCG. The group aims to identify key molecules for oral cancer development.

Your group focuses on oral cancer, could you tell us about your findings so far?

"Oral cancer originates from the surface of the oral mucosa, infiltrating the connective tissue and bone, and thereby leading to destructions of the face, if left untreated. Our research group has focused on the interaction between infiltrating epithelial tumor cells and the host cells in the connective tissue, especially the fibroblasts. We have shown that fibroblasts associated with cancer cells (CAFs) play a crucial role in cancer progression and have characterized at the molecular level how CAFs are actively involved in cancer development and invasion. The group has also identified diagnostic biomarkers implicated in the regulation of cell cycle, genomic stability, chromatin maintenance and stem cell regulation and developed a cancer index system of diagnostic and prognostic value based on this panel of molecular markers."

How do you work in your research?

"We have developed a 3D cell culture model mimicking oral mucosa, with surface epithelium and connective tissue, making it possible to study the interaction between these two compartments. This model has been used to compare growth of normal and malignant mucosa. By manipulating the model, e.g. by changing the growth conditions or by exposing the surface to external factors, we have been able to characterize stepwise tumor progression and regulating factors important for tumor infiltration. We are also using advanced animal models in our research, in addition to patient material from oral cancer. This material is achieved from Norwegian patients, but also from the United Kingdom, India, Nepal and Sudan, in close collaboration with researchers from these countries, opening up for comparative studies on oral cancer from different parts of the world."

What is the ultimate goal of your research?

"There is a need for a simple clinical tool that can select premalignant and malignant lesions in the oral cavity. Today there is no diagnostic tool that can predict which white or red oral pre-cancer lesions that will progress to infiltrative oral cancers. Our goal is to develop such a diagnostic and prognostic tool that can stratify patients with oral lesions for more individualized therapy."


PubMed Publications

Find Johannessen's PubMed publications here.