Researchers hone in on a way to predict aggressiveness of oral cancer

July 2, 2014

Studying mouth cancer in mice, researchers have found a way to predict the aggressiveness of similar tumors in people, an early step toward a diagnostic test that could guide treatment, according to researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Reporting in Clinical Cancer Research, the investigators found a consistent pattern of gene expression associated with tumor spreading in mice. Analyzing genetic data from human oral cancer samples, they also found this gene signature in people with aggressive metastatic tumors.

The researchers showed that exposure to a known carcinogen sometimes produced tumors in the mice that did not spread, but other times resulted in aggressive metastatic tumors, similar to the variety of tumors seen in people. They then collaborated with the Genome Institute at Washington University to find out whether the mouse and human tumors also were genetically similar. They compared their mouse sequences to human data sets from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA). They found that “many of the genetic mutations present in the mouse tumors also were found in human head and neck cancers,” according to coauthor Ravindra Uppaluri, MD, PhD.

Further analysis identified a common signature in the expression of about 120 genes that was associated with the more aggressive tumors, whether in mice or people. The researchers confirmed this signature using data collected from 324 human patients. Subsequently, using oral cancer samples from patients, they developed a proof-of-concept test from their signature that identified the aggressive tumors with about 93% accuracy.

Uppaluri has a patent pending on this technology and recently received funding from the Siteman Cancer Frontier Fund to develop a laboratory test that predicts aggressive disease and would be easily available for any patient diagnosed with head and neck cancer. Read the study abstract.

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