11 Jun 2015

Monash research on head and neck cancer provides first real breakthrough in decades

The research group which published this paper. L-R: Dr Charbel
Darido, Ms Seema Srivastava, Mr Michael Cangkrama, Prof
Stephen Jane, Dr Smitha Georgy, Dr Seb Dworkin, Ms Alana
Auden. Not present: Dr Darren Partridge, Prof Catriona McLean
Research published this week in the prestigious Journal of the National Cancer Institute provides the first real insight in more than 50 years as to how head and neck cancers – one of the more deadly forms of cancer – develop. The discovery opens the way to identifying patients with particular types of head and neck cancer that may be candidates for more targeted therapies.

Each year more than 3100 Australians are diagnosed with squamous cell cancers (SCC) of the head and neck, with almost 1000 dying from the disease – which predominantly affects the tongue, mouth, pharynx, and larynx, usually in patients who smoke.

If caught early the treatment of small, localised cancer results in at least 75% of patients surviving five years after diagnosis. However, in general, the prognosis for head and neck cancer is poor. A diagnosis of advanced disease means that the survival rate can drop to 15%.

For over fifty years there has been little progress made in understanding the disease. This week, however, researchers from the Monash University Central Clinical School at the Alfred Hospital, have published data which reveals – for the first time – how the cancer grows. The team, headed by Professor Stephen Jane, has identified a new gene that is critical for cancer development in a subset of patients with the disease.  Interestingly, this gene is also disrupted SCC of the skin, a finding previously published by the group.

According to Professor Jane, the discovery is the first step in being able to select patients for specific therapies that are likely to target their disease – so called personalized medicine.  “Disruption of this key gene sets up a pathway of changes in cells in the mouth and oral cavity that induces rapid cell growth, the hallmark of cancer,” he said. This pathway is completely different to the pathway that underpins SCC of the skin. “Excitingly, some of these signals are already the targets of therapies in other cancers, raising the possibility that this could translate into meaningful outcomes in patients with head and neck cancers in a relatively short time frame,” he said.

 Drug trials in model systems are already underway, and showing promising results.
Reference: Georgy SR, Cangkrama M, Srivastava S, Partridge D, Auden A, Dworkin S, McLean CA, Jane SM, Darido C. Identification of a novel proto-oncogenic network in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst (2015). doi:10.1093/jnci/dvj152
Laboratory: www.med.monash.edu.au/medicine/alfred/research/epidermal-development.html
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