Diseases & Research

Oral Cancer

Oral cancer

Squamous carcinoma (dark pink mass at center) surrounded by connective stroma

UW Medicine

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Hutchinson Center scientists are studying oral cancer's genetics, with the goal of improving how we treat the disease and predict its course. 

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Fast Facts

  • Oral cancer occurs as oral-cavity cancer, which starts in the mouth, and as oropharyngeal cancer, which develops in the part of the throat just behind the mouth (the oropharynx).

  • Oral cancer can affect the cheeks, tongue, mouth and/or throat.

  • Major risk factors include smoking, chewing tobacco or betel quid, consuming alcohol and being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV).

  • More than 80 percent of oral cancer patients who are diagnosed early will survive. Unfortunately, however, the majority of oral cancers are not diagnosed until the disease has advanced.

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Prevention & Causes

Investigating the link between oral cancer and marijuana use – Contrary to previous research findings, Marijuana use does not appear to be associated with an increased risk of developing oral cancer, according to a multi-institution study led by Dr. Stephen Schwartz and colleagues. Learn more »

Determining oral cancer risk factors – Drs. Stephen Schwartz, Chu Chen and Eduardo Mendez are working to gain a better understanding of how genetic, virologic and lifestyle characteristics work together to affect oral cancer risk and prognosis. They have found a connection between oral cancer risk and the presence of both human papillomavirus (HPV) and herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV1) in the blood.

Our investigators are also studying how a patient's environment might affect their oral cancer risk.

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Treatment & Prognosis

Predicting aggressive cancer – Dr. Chu Chen and colleagues are pinpointing the genetic changes associated with oral cancer risk and progression. Identifying these genetic patterns could help predict the aggressiveness of a patient’s cancer and ultimately help doctors decide whether surgery, which can cause facial disfiguring and psychological stress, is appropriate. Learn more »

Preventing unnecessary surgery – Dr. Chen and colleagues have, for the first time, identified a four-gene set that signals when oral cancer has spread to lymph nodes in the neck. The discovery could lead to a test that helps doctors identify which patients require surgery to remove their lymph nodes. Learn more »

Restricting tumor growth – Drs. Chen and Eduardo Mendez have identified gene signatures in patient tumors that can better predict patient survival. Dr. Mendez is also researching innovative ways to block the same set of genes and limit cancer cell growth.

Advancing treatment – Dr. Renato Martins is testing new combinations of drug therapies to improve treatment of head and neck cancers.

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