As the name implies, head and neck cancer is a group of cancers that starts within the mouth, nose, throat, larynx, sinuses or salivary glands. Head and neck cancers combined are the sixth most common group of cancers in the world and oftentimes considered preventable because making certain lifestyle changes significantly lowers a person’s risk.
- An estimated 66,630 new cases of head and neck cancers will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2021, with estimates of 14,620 deaths expected to result from the diagnosis.
- Head and neck cancers account for 4% of all cancers in the U.S.
- Men are two to three times more likely than women to develop a head or neck cancer because of their greater use of tobacco and alcohol. However, head and neck cancers found in women have been rising for several years.
- The consumption of tobacco (including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and smokeless tobacco) and alcohol are the most common causes of head and neck cancers. Tobacco-induced head and neck cancer is slowly declining globally, in part to decreased use of tobacco.
- The fraction of head and neck cancers due to infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV) or Epstein-Barr virus HPV is rising. Other risk factors for head and neck cancers may include poor oral hygiene, exposure to occupational inhalants (such as asbestos or wood dust), a diet low in vegetables and fruits, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and a weakened immune system.
Source: American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts & Figures 2021 and GLOBOCAN 2018
Signs and Symptoms
A symptom is a change in the body that a person can see and/or feel. A sign is a change that the doctor sees during an examination or on a laboratory test result. If you have any of the symptoms below, it does not mean you have cancer but you should see your doctor or health care professional so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed.
- Painless white patch or red patch in the mouth
- Hoarseness or change in voice
- Sore throat
- Foul mouth odor not explained by hygiene
- Nasal obstruction or persistent nasal congestion
- Painless lump in the mouth or neck
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing or breathing
- Loosening of teeth
- Frequent nosebleed, particularly on one side of the nose
- Hearing loss or ear pain, particularly in one ear
- Blood in saliva or phlegm
- Weight loss or fatigue
Source: American Cancer Society 2021 and American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) 2021
Head and Neck Cancers Research
In addition to specific projects listed below, genomics research is helping us attack head and neck cancers – and all types of cancer. NFCR has distinguished itself from other organizations by emphasizing long-term, transformative research and working to move people toward cancer genomics.
One of the major signaling proteins in tumor formation and suppression of our immune system found in over 50% of cancers is STAT3. As an activator of the expression of genes, STAT3 controls networks of genes that allow cancer growth and metastasis (spreading). However, the development of a drug that targets STAT3 has been a challenge for the research community, earning STAT3 the label of ‘undruggable’.
Dr. Ron DePinho and his colleagues used computer-based drug screening of hundreds of thousands of compounds from chemical libraries to identify several compounds that inhibit STAT3 protein in complex tumor models of various cancers. With funds from the NFCR AIM-HI Translational Research Initiative, the scientists have brought the lead inhibitor agent to clinical trials to treat head and neck cancer and other advanced cancers, giving patients hope that their lives may be saved.
Dr. Paul Fisher previously discovered IL/24 – a powerful cytokine or immune modulator gene. In models of numerous types of cancer including head and neck cancer, IL/24 gene therapy causes primary and spreading tumor cells throughout the body to commit ‘cell suicide’ (apoptosis) but leaves healthy cells untouched. The first Phase I clinical trial for IL/24 gene therapy demonstrated apoptosis in tumors from patients with head and neck and other types of cancer. Additionally, IL/24 was shown to be safe as well for patients.
Dr. Fisher has demonstrated other remarkable anti-cancer properties of IL/24 including activation of the immune system to further fight cancer and sensitizing tumor cells to radiation, chemotherapy and immunotherapy. He has developed different ways to deliver cytokine IL/24 gene therapy and research is advancing quickly so patients with many types of cancer may benefit from the groundbreaking therapies. With support from NFCR, Dr. Fisher and Dr. Web Cavenee will first advance lL/24 therapies to clinical trials for the aggressive brain cancer, GBM, and patients hope for a new effective treatment to save their lives.
Dr. Esther Chang, who received NFCR funding for 25 years, has devoted her career to improving the efficacy of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Dr. Chang and her team developed a nanoscale drug delivery system that carries anti-cancer agents (like the p53 tumor suppressor gene) directly to both primary and metastatic tumor cells. In earlier work, they found that this approach significantly enhanced a tumor’s sensitivity to chemo and radiation therapies in complex tumor models of 16 different types of cancer, including head and neck, prostate, pancreatic and breast cancer and melanoma.