Head & Neck Cancer: Recent Discoveries and New Clinical Trials

What is Head and Neck Cancer?

Cancers collectively known as head and neck cancers typically begin in cells that line the moist, mucosal surfaces inside the head and neck including the mouth, nose and throat. Head and neck cancers are further categorized by the area in which they begin.

According to the National Cancer Institute, tobacco use, alcohol use and human papillomavirus infection are important risk factors for head and neck cancers.

Typical symptoms of head and neck cancers include:

  • A sore on the lip or in the mouth that does not heal
  • A lump on the lip or in the mouth or throat
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue or lining of the mouth
  • Unusual bleeding, pain or numbness in the mouth
  • A sore throat that does not go away or a feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Difficulty or pain with chewing or swallowing
  • Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
  • A change in the voice or hoarseness
  • Pain in the ear
  • Slurred speech
  • Loose teeth
  • Unintended weight loss

What Discoveries Have Been Made in Head and Neck Cancer?

One of the most significant breakthroughs in head and neck cancer research has been the discovery of the causal relationship between the human papillomavirus and tumors of the base of the tongue and the tonsils.

“We are now seeing these cancers in epidemic proportions across the world,” says Matthew Old, MD. “In fact, we see five to 10 patients every week with HPV-associated cancers at The James.”

This discovery has led to the development of studies and clinical trials to help improve treatment options for patients.

“There are over eight clinical trials here at The James to target the head and neck cancer population, because there’s no routine cancer,” Old says. “In fact, we have two new clinical trials coming out this summer that combine TransOral Robotic Surgery with different therapies to try to improve patients’ quality of life.”

Additional research being conducted at The James will culminate in a new virus trial slated to begin in 2015.

“We’re designing viruses that target tumor cells but do not infect the body, and that leave all other normal tissues intact,” Old says. “With these studies, we’re able to specifically kill cancer cells but not affect the normal body, which could be a big breakthrough in cancer therapy.”

Qualified patients will have had significant treatment and be faced with no other treatment options.

“Unfortunately, with a survival rate of about 50 percent for head and neck cancer,” says Old, “there are many patients who would qualify where we’ve exhausted all other therapies.”

Hear from Dr. Old on the 100th segment of Toward a Cancer-Free World and find out more about if you should get a free head and neck screening at the OSUCCC - James on April 25, 2014.