Researchers at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), working as part of a team of scientists with The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) Network, have identified a characteristic molecular pattern shared by head and neck, lung, and some bladder cancers. The molecular profile offers information that could help physicians diagnose and develop new treatment strategies for these diseases. The results of the study appeared online in the August 7, 2014 journal Cell.
TCGA, a joint venture of the NIH’s National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), was established to comprehensively characterize the genomes of more than 30 types of cancer.
“We need to better understand head and neck cancer and find ways to treat it so we can preserve patients’ voices and improve their quality of life,” says Carter Van Waes, MD, PhD, clinical director and chief of the NIDCD Head and Neck Surgery branch. He and Zhong Chen, MD, PhD, also part of the tumor biology section at the NIDCD, were part of the research team. Currently, about 320,000 Americans have trouble communicating because of treatments they have undergone for head and neck cancers.
Cancer therapies are usually based on where the cancer originated, such as breast, lung, or head and neck. But research has revealed that tumors are diverse at the molecular level and that these differences can affect their response to medicines. Some tumors from the same site have distinct molecular characteristics and respond to differing medicines, while tumors from different sites may share molecular features and respond to similar treatments.
In the current study, the researchers examined the molecular characteristics of 3,527 samples representing a dozen different types of cancer. Their aim was to determine if any patterns would emerge and if so, to categorize the samples according to these patterns.
By collecting and analyzing five types of data, including DNA and RNA sequences and gene copy numbers, the researchers identified 11 molecular subgroups. Most of the cancer types had a molecular profile linked to their original tissue of origin.
The situation was slightly different for head and neck cancers, however. Virtually all the samples in this class fell into the same molecular subgroup. In addition, most of the lung cancer samples, as well as some of the bladder cancer samples, also fell into this group.
The researchers also found that the cancers in this subgroup shared certain mutations and chromosome changes, suggesting that they may be susceptible to similar treatments. This data could help physicians who are treating head and neck cancer to base a patient’s treatment on his or her tumor’s genetic profile rather than where the cancer originated.
“This work highlights the value of taking a broad approach to molecular characterization of tumors,” says Dr Chen. “Only by performing such a comprehensive analysis were we able to uncover a link between head and neck, lung, and bladder cancers. In the future, we may be able to target the molecular defects identified in this study and develop medicines that are effective for different types of cancer.”