Australia-based Monash varsity researchers have made the first real breakthrough in half-a-century identifying the gene behind cancers of the head and neck and understanding how these develop squamous cell cancers (SCC) grow, shedding new light on one of the most deadly forms of the disease.
“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,” said lead researcher, Prof. Stephen Jane, head of Monash University’s Central Clinical School.
More than 3,000 Australians are diagnosed with squamous cell cancers each year, and almost a third of those cases prove fatal. The cancer mostly affects smokers, with tumours developing in the mouth and on the tongue, pharynx and larynx. At least 75 per cent of patients in whom SCC is caught early are still alive five years after diagnosis.
However, just 15 per cent survive when the disease is identified at an advanced stage. Prof. Jane’s discovery opens the way to identifying patients who may be candidates for more targeted therapies – so-called ‘personalised medicine’.
“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,” said Prof. Jane adding that the drug trials in model systems are already underway and showing promising results.
The study has been published this week in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.