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Biomarkers signal head and neck cancer patients’ response to radiation treatment

September 4, 2014

Head and Neck

Radiation therapy is a powerful treatment for many cancers; however, the side effects associated with this treatment demand careful consideration before using it. According to the National Cancer Institute, these effects may include fatigue, fibrosis, hair loss, memory loss, gastrointestinal distress, incontinence, infertility and/or long-term damage to tissue and organs.

Because not all patients respond positively to radiation therapy and the side effects can be severe, scientists around the world are trying to find effective ways to predict which patients should undergo the treatment.

An international team of scientists recently identified biomarkers that may predict when radiation is appropriate for patients with squamous cell cancer of the head and neck, as published in the European Journal of Cancer.

Research opens door for personalized medicine
The NCI estimated that 3 percent of all malignant diseases in the U.S. are head and neck cancers, with more than 52,000 adults diagnosed with these cancers in 2012. Most of these conditions start out as squamous cell carcinomas.

"Radiation therapy is a common treatment for people with squamous cell cancer of the head and neck. However, it's not always well-tolerated," lead researcher Jan Akervall, M.D., Ph.D., said. "It can take two months, resulting in lots of side effects. Some of these complications are permanent. Before my patient goes down that path, I really want to know if their tumors are going to respond to radiation. That's where the patient's biomarkers can shed some light. If not, we can look at other treatment options – saving time, possible risk for complications and expense."

To investigate the value of biomarkers in determining which squamous cell head and neck cancer patients would benefit most from radiation, the research team experimented on two groups of individuals. Within the first group, the scientists screened 18,000 different genes and pinpointed five potential biomarkers that were possible indicators of radiation therapy responsiveness. Within the second group of patients, the researchers were not only able to confirm their findings pertaining to the five biomarkers they found, but also discovered that two were especially good indicators of responsiveness.

The study authors assert that this research contributes to the overall movement towards personalized medicine. In the meantime, they plan to conduct further investigations via randomized clinical trials.

Predicting patient response to therapy is an important study area for oncology and other fields of medicine. These experiments can yield results that lead to personalized medicine and improved patient care. The success of these experiments depends upon gaining access to a large number of specimens from patients with specific medical conditions and known treatment outcomes. Organizations, such as iSpecimen, who provide access to a vast number of highly-annotated clinical and anatomic pathology specimens, can help reduce the time it takes to conduct such important medical research.

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