Research to develop ways to inhibit head and neck cancers, the fifth most common cancer worldwide

A University of Queensland researcher has been awarded $850,000 by one of Australia’s largest private, charitable, medical foundations to develop ways to inhibit head and neck cancers, the fifth most common cancer worldwide.

The Garnett Passe and Rodney Williams Memorial Foundation has awarded a fellowship to Associate Professor Nicholas Saunders, from UQ’s Faculty of Health Sciences and Principal Research Fellow at UQ’s Centre for Immunology and Cancer Research at Princess Alexandra Hospital.

Dr Saunders said squamous cell carcinomas were the most common type of head and neck cancers (comprising about 80 percent of all head and neck cancers).

Dr Saunders said these cancers were associated with a high mortality rate and a five-year survival rate of approximately only 60 percent.

“In addition, these tumours are also associated with a high annual recurrence rate, ” he said.

“Current therapies for head and neck cancers include surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. However, because of the high mortality rate associated with the traditional therapies there’s an obvious need for safer and more specific therapies to reduce the mortality.”

Dr Saunders’ research group has recently shown, in laboratory experiments, that inhibiting a protein known as E2F can inhibit cancer cell growth and reverse the cancer process.

Dr Saunders said “since E2F was needed for cancer cell growth, and was found abundantly in squamous cell carcinomas in patients, the development of inhibitors of E2F was a logical approach to treat this disease”.

“The development of E2F inhibitors promises to deliver a more specific and less toxic way of treating head and neck cancers. This type of therapy is completely novel and, if successful, would reduce the mortality and morbidity in patients” states Dr Saunders.

“I am most grateful for the Fellowship awarded by the Garnett Passe and Rodney Williams Memorial Foundation,” he said.

“This will allow us to conduct proof of principle experiments in animal models and in human patients. We also are examining methods of treatment delivery — whether gene-based therapy or drugs, but these advances could be five to 10 years away.

“Progress towards these goals has been greatly expedited by our close collaboration with Professor Bill Coman, UQ’s Garnett Passe and Rodney Williams Memorial Foundation Professor of Otolaryngology and chairman of Princess Alexandra Hospital’s Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) Department.”

Professor Coman said: “We are obviously concerned with patients’ surviving their cancer but also with maintaining their quality of life by improving functional outcomes such as; breathing, swallowing and talking. Our functional outcomes and survival rates are comparable with the best in the world.”

“We are always looking for better and simpler ways of treating cancer.”

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