Research in the news: Study offers new look at complex head and neck tumor behavior

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Head and neck squamous cell cancer (HNSCC) ranks among the top ten most prevalent cancers in the United States. Despite its prevalence, little is known about how this cancer develops and spreads. However, in a paper to be published in the January 29, 2015 edition of Nature, researchers offer critical new information about head and neck cancers. An increasing number of head and neck cancers are caused by a virus, the human papilloma virus (HPV). Using tissue from HPV-positive and HPV-negative (largely linked to smoking) HNSCC tumors, researchers from institutions around the country referenced The Cancer Genome Atlas to develop a comprehensive assessment of alterations, or oncogenes, that could play a role in how the tumors develop and metastasize, said Wendell Yarbrough, M.D., section chief of otolaryngology at Yale School of Medicine and Clinical Program Leader of the Head & Neck Cancer Program at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven. “To make the progress we envision with personalized medicine, we first have to understand what’s driving these tumors, and this is one of the first studies to do this,” said Yarbrough, an author on the study. “We found some characteristics we’d never seen before in these tumors that ultimately could help us pair the most effective new drugs with patients most likely to respond.” Notable among the findings is the fact that the defects in tumors varied broadly across patients, with tumors of some non-smokers or low-smokers resembling those of smokers. The study also uncovered the presence of the Her2 gene amplification, known to play a critical role in breast cancer. Yale Cancer Center will continue growing and analyzing tissue from tumors for efficacy with known and experimental drugs. “Our hope is find the best matches in the lab and bring them to patients as quickly as possible,” Yarbrough added.

This article was submitted by Renee Elizabeth Gaudette on January 28, 2015.

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Wendell Yarbrough

Professor of Surgery (Otolaryngology) and of Pathology