Melbourne: Australian researchers have made the first real breakthrough in 50 years in understanding how cancers of the head and neck develop, shedding new light on one of the most deadly forms of the disease.
The study by Monash University's Central Clinical School has identified a new gene that is critical for the growth squamous cell cancers (SCC) of the head and neck.
"Disruption of this key gene sets up a pathway of changes in cells in the mouth and oral cavity that induces rapid cell growth, the hallmark of cancer," said lead researcher Stephen Jane.
More than 3,000 Australians are diagnosed with squamous cell cancers each year, and almost a third of those cases prove fatal. The cancer mostly affects smokers, with tumours developing in the mouth and on the tongue, pharynx and larynx.
At least 75 per cent of patients in whom SCC is caught early still alive five years after diagnosis, the study, published in the prestigious Journal of the National Cancer Institute, said.
However, just 15 per cent survive when the disease is only identified at an advanced stage.
The research opens the way to identifying patients who may be candidates for more targeted therapies of so-called 'personalised medicine'.
"Excitingly, some of these signals are already the targets of therapies in other cancers, raising the possibility that this could translate into meaningful outcomes in patients with head and neck cancers in a relatively short time frame," Jane said.
Jane said drug trials in model systems were already underway and showing promising results.
Monash University is a national leader in accelerating research from the laboratory into real treatments and outcomes for patients.