“Surgery is a very effective first line treatment for head and neck cancer, particularly at an early stage. However, we need new options that increase the prospects for survival in later-stage cancer, without the disadvantages of our current treatment options.”
– John A. “Drew” Ridge, MD, PhD
Head and neck cancer is a potentially devastating disease that strikes nearly 50,000 Americans every year. Even with treatment, only about 50 percent of all head and neck cancer patients are still alive five years after diagnosis.
There are at least two major types of head and neck cancer; both involve the lining of the body. The first includes cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box, and the sinuses. Most of these tumors are found in people with a history of heavy tobacco use. Scientists believe this type of cancer is caused by genetic mutations triggered by carcinogens in tobacco. Alcohol may also play a role.
Within the last two decades, physicians have recognized a different type of cancer, which chiefly affects somewhat younger adults than those typically affected by tobacco-related tumors. These cancers usually develop at the back of the tongue or in the tonsils. They are caused by the human papilloma virus—the same virus that causes cervical cancer.
Though most patients with small head and neck tumors do very well, treatment of advanced head and neck cancers can cause long-term problems. Despite recent advances in surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, all too many patients are left with significant changes in speech, swallowing, and appearance. These reduce their quality of life.
The goal of the Keystone Program in Head and Neck Cancer is to develop new therapies that will help more patients survive—with fewer devastating side effects. To achieve this goal, researchers need to learn much more about the network of defective genes and proteins responsible for the development of head and neck cancers.
Keystone investigators believe a multi-disciplinary, focused effort merging the expertise of basic scientists, clinical researchers, and doctors concentrating primarily on patient care will lead to more effective therapies, improved survival, and a better life for patients with head and neck cancer.