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.
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.
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.
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.
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.