Researchers fingerprint head, neck cancer for better diagnostics

Aggressive cancer treatment can be associated with a lot of side effects, but is often essential if the cancer is going to be life-threatening. Knowing how fast a cancer will progress is therefore very useful in helping physicians (and patients) decide how aggressively to treat the tumor. A genetic marker, known as miR-375, might help to meet this need.

Changes in microRNAs (miRNAs), short noncoding stretches of genetic material, seem to have turned up with just about every cancer type examined so far. Researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine have compared levels of miRNAs from samples of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) and normal tissues from the same patients to find those that were the most altered, to see if they could act as potential biomarkers.

Of all the miRNAs assessed, miR-375 showed the most significant differences between the reduced levels in the cancerous cells compared with the levels in the normal cells. The researchers linked these results with patient outcomes, and found that the larger the difference in miR-375 between normal and cancer cells, the more likely there would be a reduced chance of survival and an increased risk of metastasis. The results were published in the American Journal of Pathology.

"Previous efforts to identify biomarkers for guiding treatment of head and neck cancer have not developed anything clinically useful for patients," said Geoffrey Childs, Ph.D., professor of pathology at Einstein and co-senior author of the paper.

The survival rate at 5 years for head and neck cancer is around 50% and this hasn't altered much in 40 years. This biomarker could increase this survival rate and improve quality of life, not only by helping out patients that will respond, but by avoiding aggressive treatment in those patients that won't.

- read the press release
- see the abstract in American Journal of Pathology