Molecular Genetics of Head and Neck Cancer

Lyon L. Gleich, MD, Frank N. Salamone, MD


Cancer Control. 2002;9(5) 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Background: Head and neck cancers have multiple genetic abnormalities that influence tumor behavior and may be useful in developing new treatments.
Methods: Genetic alterations implicated in head and neck cancer oncogenesis and behavior are reviewed, and molecular techniques for detection and treatment are evaluated.
Results: The large number of genetic changes present in head and neck cancer cells precludes meaningful use of simple molecular tests and treatments. Detection of abnormalities in multiple genes provides better prognostic information than the detection and assessment of single mutations. Screening tests that rely on amplification of genetic material present in bodily fluids are hindered by the genomic complexity of head and neck cancer. Introduction of genetic material into head and neck cancer cells for gene therapy has shown some efficacy.
Conclusions: Head and neck cancers comprise a complex genetic disease. Although much has been learned about the molecular genetics of head and neck cancers, continued study of multiple genes is critical for further progress. Gene therapy, although promising, must also overcome this complexity.

Genetic abnormalities in head and neck squamous cell cancer have been studied extensively, and frequent changes have been found. A key motivation for investigating head and neck cancer genetics is to find prognostic indicators of patient survival or markers to select the type of treatment. Further understanding of head and neck cancer genetics may also permit the development of new cancer therapies. This article discusses information on changes in tumor suppressor genes and oncogenes, presents the current state of the art of molecular detection of head and neck cancer, and reviews the status and promise of gene therapy.


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