Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancers are the sixth most common group of cancers in the world. These cancers arise from cells that line the mouth, nose, throat, larynx and, rarely, salivary glands. Major risk factors include tobacco use, heavy alcohol consumption, and infection with human papillomavirus, or HPV. Head and neck cancers are often disfiguring, as the tumors can impede the ability to talk, swallow or even breathe. 

Current treatments present major drawbacks. Depending on the tumor’s location, surgery to remove it can be as disfiguring as the tumor itself. The chemotherapy drug commonly used to treat head and neck cancer has numerous toxic side effects.

A head and neck cancer tissue scan.
A head and neck cancer tissue scan. Fred Hutch

Head and Neck Cancer Research

From molecular biology to targeted drug therapy, Fred Hutch research into head and neck cancers includes the entire bench-to-bedside spectrum. We are working to improve prevention and treatment and also reduce side effects from treatment.

Decoding Molecular Profiles


Fred Hutch researchers are pioneering new ways to both diagnose and decipher the genetic makeup of head and neck cancers. Through a painstaking process called functional genomics, we can screen hundreds or thousands of genes to pinpoint those that, when shut off, halt the growth of tumor cells. By pinpointing vulnerabilities in tumors, this work has already led to clinical trials of new approaches for patients and holds the potential to deliver on the promise of precision oncology. 

Pinpointing the Factors Driving Cancer Development


Building on our deep experience in cancer biology, Fred Hutch scientists are investigating the interplay of genetic, viral, environmental and lifestyle factors in both the causes and progression of these cancers. In collaboration with international consortiums, our researchers are conducting population- and hospital-based studies to identify clear risk factors for these cancers and pinpoint tumor biomarkers. Fred Hutch science paved the way for the HPV vaccine. Through our Pathogen-Associated Malignancies Integrated Research Center, we are continuing our groundbreaking investigations into how HPV and other viruses and pathogens trigger head and neck cancers.

Developing Targeted Treatments


Our advances in molecular research have paved the way for our efforts to discover and validate novel drugs and treatment tools for patients with head and neck cancers. As we develop and test the next generation of targeted anticancer agents, we’re undertaking clinical trials to determine whether these drugs work better and are safer than current treatments.

Our scientists are also developing tools to determine a patient’s prognosis, which can help doctors choose the best treatment for that specific cancer.

HABIT: Health and Behavioral Innovations in Technology

Tobacco use is a risk factor for head and neck cancers. But nicotine is powerfully addictive, and kicking it is a tall order — even for people with cancer. Enter HABIT, a Fred Hutch research group that creates and tests programs to promote health behavior changes. Among its innovations: the smartphone app iCanQuit, which has been proven to help smokers drop the habit. 

Selected Head and Neck Cancer Clinical Trials

Clinical research is an essential part of the scientific process that leads to new treatments and better care. Clinical trials can also be a way for patients to get early access to new cutting-edge therapies. Our clinical research teams are running clinical studies on various kinds of head and neck cancers.

See All Head and Neck Cancer Clinical Trials

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center campus.

Our Head and Neck Cancer Researchers

Our interdisciplinary scientists and clinicians work together to prevent, diagnose and treat head and neck cancers as well as other cancers and diseases.

Seattle Cancer Care Alliance building.

Patient Treatment & Care

Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, our clinical care partner, gives patients access to the comprehensive, world-class treatments developed at Fred Hutch.

Last Modified, September 21, 2021