Researchers Identify Aggressive Genes in Oral Cancer

Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have recently discovered a way to predict the aggressiveness of oral cancer tumors in mice which is an important step towards doing the same with cancer tumors in humans to guide treatment.

“All patients with advanced head and neck cancer get similar treatments,” according to associate professor of otolaryngology Ravindra Uppaluri, MD, PhD.  “We have patients who do well on standard combinations of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, and patients who don’t do so well.  We’re interested in finding out why.”

Pattern of Gene Expression

The researchers discovered a consistent pattern of gene expression in the aggressive tumors in mice and found this same gene signature in the human oral cancer samples of those with aggressive tumors.  Their findings were reported in Clinical Cancer Research.

“We didn’t automatically assume this mouse model would be relevant to human oral cancer,” claims Uppaluri who is a head and neck surgeon at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.  “But it turns out to be highly reflective of the disease in people.”

The team of researchers induced tumors in the mice using a known carcinogen to mimic the way humans develop mouth cancer through tobacco or alcohol use in order to produce similar tumors.  They discovered that some of the tumors that formed in the mice did not spread while others formed into aggressive metastatic tumors very similar to those found in humans.  The researchers then worked with Elaine Mardis, PhD and co-director of the Genome Institute at Washington University, to determine if the mouse tumors were genetically similar to human tumors.  Samples of the mouse tumors were compared with human samples from the Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA).

“When we sequenced these tumors, we found that a lot of the genetic mutations present in the mouse tumors also were found in human head and neck cancers,” says Uppaluri.

Related: Why we recommend oral cancer screening

Concept Test

The researchers identified a common signature associated with the aggressive tumors in both mice and people in about 120 different genes which was confirmed with data from 324 human patients.  They were then able to develop a proof of concept test from the gene signature using oral cancer samples from Washington University patients.  Their concept test identified aggressive tumors with an accuracy of 93 percent.

Uppaluri is currently working with the Washington University Office of Technology Management and has a patent pending for the technology behind the proof of concept test.  The Siteman Cancer Frontier Fund recently gave Uppaluri funding to develop a lab test to predict the aggressiveness of tumors in patients with head and neck cancer.  According to Uppaluri, there are already similar tests used for other types of cancer and “It’s our goal to develop something like that for head and neck cancer.”

Remember to visit your dentist twice a year to keep your teeth and mouth healthy and catch any potential hazards early.

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