From a young age, Samuel Thambar knew he wanted to become a doctor. Inspired by his grandfather, who was an eye surgeon in Sri Lanka, Samuel developed a similar interest in surgery during his pursuit of a medical career, but that is where their paths diverged.
Having grown up in Brisbane, Samuel’s academic studies began at Griffith University with a Bachelor of Medical Science followed by Medicine. Upon graduating in 2012, he worked at the Gold Coast Hospital and then across rural Queensland; during this time, he became interested in surgery, particularly in oral cancer and facial trauma, which led him to the discipline of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery.
In 2016, Dr Thambar returned to Griffith to study Dentistry, during which he also completed a Research Masters of Head and Neck Surgery through the University of Sydney. This led to him enrolling in a Doctor of Philosophy through Griffith’s School of Dentistry and Oral Health. He finally graduated from Dentistry last year and has now commenced specialty training in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery.
For Oral Cancer Awareness Month, April 2021, we spoke with Dr Thambar and discovered how research can contribute to improved early detection of oral cancer, plus the simple ways you can take charge of your oral health:
Q & A:
What is the focus of your research and why is it important?
My research is focused on improving the early detection of oral cancer in patients with oral pre-malignant diseases. Oral cancer can be an aggressive condition that is associated with a poor survival rate for late-stage disease, and a high reoccurrence rate. Currently, there are limited screening strategies in place to detect premalignant lesions that are associated with an increased likelihood of becoming oral cancer. Hence, I am researching the microbiome focusing on Candida, a fungus that naturally occurs in the mouth, and its role in the progression of premalignant conditions to oral cancer. This research is important because oral squamous cell carcinoma is a major cause of morbidity and mortality, and better patient outcomes could be achieved through further research into the role of carcinogenesis of candida. My research is also focused on the discovery of a range of biomarkers, such as microRNAs, that are involved in this process. Body fluids such as saliva provide promising biomarkers for cancer detection, treatment planning and disease monitoring. Thus, this research would bolster the limited body of evidence for non-invasive screening methods such as saliva samples or liquid biopsies. The results and knowledge gained from this research may benefit clinicians and the community by facilitating the early diagnosis of cancer.
What sparked your passion for this area of research?
As a junior doctor, I worked across numerous head and neck cancer units. During this time, I witnessed first-hand the devastating implications that a late presentation and delayed diagnosis of oral cancer had on patients’ lives. Many patients required major disfiguring reconstructive surgeries, and experienced irreversible impacts on their form and functioning. From these experiences, it became apparent that detecting early lesions through checks with their dentist or general practitioner (GP), and determining which lesions had a greater risk of becoming oral cancer, would greatly improve patient care. It was these experiences that inspired me to study dentistry, so that I could become an Oral and Maxillofacial surgeon and pursue further research in this field.
‘When you enjoy your chosen topic, research is immensely easier and is more likely to benefit the community.’
How does research help doctors in their career?
Research is essential to the evolution of medicine: it ensures that our practice is at the cutting edge of scientific progress and helps drive medical advancement, which can translate into better patient outcomes. It is therefore important that doctors are introduced to research early in their career. Research also inadvertently improves organisational skills, writing skills and presentation skills, which ultimately improves a doctor’s clinical work. Additionally, research provides a good insight into a particular speciality and allows doctors to develop expertise in a specific area within their speciality. I believe the hardest part of research is finding a topic that you are truly passionate about, and then finding a similarly passionate supervisor who can guide and mentor you in your research area. I was fortunate enough to be mentored by Associate Professor Raj Nair, who has dedicated his career to oral cancer research.
What is the philosophy that has guided your career?
My research journey only started after I had taken the time to determine the field that I was passionate about. This meant that I took longer to try different specialties until I eventually found the one that interested me the most. I am glad that I took the time to find what I was passionate about, because this makes it much easier to pursue every opportunity that is given to you in that field. When you enjoy your chosen topic, research is immensely easier and is more likely to benefit the community.
‘Oral cancer is very treatable and patients have very good outcomes when detected early.’
Do you have any recommendations or words of wisdom for us this Oral Cancer Awareness Month?
Oral cancer is an aggressive condition with a poor survival rate for late-stage disease. It causes needless deaths because so few cases are diagnosed early. Those deaths are preventable, as oral cancer is very treatable and patients have very good outcomes when detected early. Your dentist is the first line of defence for oral cancer, and regular check-ups can help pick up the early signs of this condition.
We should all be aware of the major causes of oral cancer: smoking, alcohol, Human papillomavirus (HPV) exposure, sun exposure to the lips and poor diet. For this reason, it is vital to cut out tobacco, drink moderately, never combine alcohol and tobacco, limit sun exposure and maintain a healthy diet.
Your dentist and GP are best equipped to detect some of the early signs of oral cancer; however, you can monitor for symptoms yourself, such as difficulty chewing or swallowing, numbness of the tongue or mouth, lumps in the mouth or neck, or white and red spots in the mouth, just to name a few. If in doubt, always contact your dentist or GP for a review as oral cancer can be treated effectively if detected early.
Interested in learning more?
You can read some of Dr Thambar’s previous research at Griffith Research Online as well as more Griffith research on oral cancer.