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Genome Study Yields Clues to Head and Neck Cancers

February 3, 2015, by NCI Staff

Anatomical  diagram of head and neck region

Researchers have surveyed the genetic changes in nearly 300 head and neck cancers, revealing some previously unknown alterations that may play a role in the disease, including in patients whose cancer is associated with the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States, and the number of HPV-related head and neck cancers has been growing.

Published January 29, in Nature, the study was conducted by The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) Research Network, which is jointly supported and managed by NCI and the National Human Genome Research Institute. The study is the most comprehensive examination to date of genomic alterations in head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC).

The researchers identified several specific genetic alterations in HPV-associated head and neck cancers, and found that the EGFR gene was frequently altered in HPV-negative tumors in people who smoked (a major risk factor for head and neck cancer), but was almost never mutated in HPV-positive tumors. The study also uncovered new smoking-related HNSCC subtypes, identified potential new drug targets, and found numerous genomic similarities with other cancer types. The study’s results may ultimately lead to novel diagnostic and treatment directions, the study authors said.

“The rapid increase in HPV-related head and neck cancers, noticeably in oropharyngeal tumors, has created an even greater sense of urgency in the field,” said coauthor D. Neil Hayes, M.D., M.P.H., of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center in a press release. “We’re uncovering differences between tumors with and without HPV infection, and these new data are allowing us to rethink how we approach head and neck cancers.”

More information on HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers is available here. Read the full study and the NCI news release

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