Making Headway Against Head & Neck Cancers

Cancer associated with number of genetic mutations

(RxWiki News) More than 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with head and neck cancers every year. Researchers are learning more about these cancers which could lead to better treatments.

Two studies involving a number of institutions have revealed genetic mutations in head and neck squamous cell cancers that could lead to more effective ways to treat the disease.

"Pinpointing genetic changes will lead to better cancer treatments"

The research brought together a team of scientists from MD Anderson Cancer Center, Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) and Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. They analyzed 32 head and neck tumors and validated their findings with another 88 tumor samples.

Another team was made up of researchers from Broad Institute, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. This group reached the same conclusions after analyzing 74 tumors.

The body produced certain genes that work to suppress tumors, that is, keep tumors from forming. When there are changes or mutations to these genes, cancers can break through and begin to develop.

For these studies, researchers found the following:

  • 47 percent of tumors had mutations in tumor-suppressing gene TP53
  • TP53 was the most commonly affected gene in head and neck cancers
  • NOTCH1, also involved in leukemia, had mutations in 15 percent of tumors
  • Other genes affected included PI3K, HRAS, CDKN2A and FBXW7

The human papillomavirus (HPV) has recently been recognized as the cause of an increasing number of oral cancers. HPV tumors are simpler and have fewer genetic mutations, researchers learned. These tumors, didn't have any mutations in TP53.

Co-senior author of one of the papers, Jeffrey Myers, M.D., Ph.D., professor in MD Anderson’s Department of Head and Neck Surgery, says these findings will help develop more personalized treatment plans for patients. The mutations may become new targets for treatment, Dr. Myers said.

Drugs that target the P13K pathway are currently being studied and head and neck cancer patients may benefit from these new agents, Dr. Myers added.

Both studies have been published online in the journal Science.

The greatest risk factors for head and neck cancers are tobacco and alcohol use. Being exposed to and infected by the HPV virus is also a growing oral cancer risk.

Nearly 500,000 cases of head and neck cancers are diagnosed worldwide each year.

Review Date: 
August 2, 2011