New insights into molecular alterations of head and neck cancers

2 February 2015

Researchers have found genomic differences in head and neck cancers caused by infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) which could have important clinical implications.

These findings are the latest from the NIH funded study by The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) Research Network. The new study is the most comprehensive examination to date of genomic alterations in head and neck cancers, with 279 tumours analysed, from untreated patients of whom 80% were smokers. 

HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the United States and 25% of head and neck cancers are linked to the infection. Dr Neil Hayes, senior author of the study said: “The rapid increase in HPV-related head and neck cancers, noticeably in oropharyngeal tumors, has created an even greater urgency in the field”.  

Published in Nature, the researchers also found new smoking-related cancer subtypes and potential new drug targets along with uncovering numerous genomic similarities with other cancer types. NHGRI Director Eric D. Green, said: “These novel findings help establish a genomic map of various head and neck cancers, provide new insights into other similar cancers and may further our understanding of how viruses can impact disease”.

Most common in HPV-related cancers were alterations in the FGRFR3 and PIK3CA genes, which produce proteins that aid cell growth. These genes were present in a broader set of mutations in smoking-related tumours. However, alterations in a gene which produces another important growth molecule, EGRF gene, were rare in HPV- positive tumours but frequently altered in HPV-negative tumours.

Overall the study found that common alterations across head and neck cancers were in a group of genes for certain growth factor receptors such as EGFR and FGFR, signalling molecules, and cell division regulation. Hayes said: “So this is a set of alterations that, at some level, many people think are drug-able”.

Talking on the TCGA efforts, Hayes said: “We really have built a parts manual for what’s broken in cancer so that we can start addressing it in a logical and real way”. However he stressed that there are still cancer types for which more genomic mapping is needed.

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