Posted July 10, 2014

Researchers to study racial disparities in head and neck cancers

Head and neck cancers account for only three percent of all cancers in the United States, but disproportionately affect high numbers of African Americans. While many studies suggest that low socioeconomic status and poor health care access are the main contributors to this disparity, research has shown that other biological factors—as well as tobacco and alcohol use—may play a role.

The American Cancer Society has awarded a $1.7 million grant to researchers from Fox Chase Cancer Center and Temple to investigate factors that may contribute to the racial disparities seen among those diagnosed and treated for head and neck cancers—specifically head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). Camille Ragin, associate professor at Fox Chase; Jeffrey Chang-Jen Liu, attending surgeon in head and neck oncology at Fox Chase and director of head and neck oncologic surgery at Temple University Hospital; and Rob Kulathinal, assistant professor of biology in Temple’s College of Science and Technology, will collaborate on the study.

“Studies on genes involved in tobacco and drug metabolism and efflux suggest an association of genetic variants with head and neck cancer risk and survival in populations of European and Asian ancestries,” said Ragin, who is the study’s principal investigator. “Genetic variants associated with the survival disparity of head and neck cancer in African-derived populations, however, is not yet clear.”

Products from tobacco smoke enter the body’s cells, in some cases enabled by alcohol, and are broken down by proteins, resulting in the accumulation of cancer-causing compounds. Variations in the genetic code that generate these proteins can lead to differences in their function and could affect the way disease may develop or respond to drug therapy. In many cases, the genetic make-up of these proteins differs according to race.

“Our group suggests that genetic factors and the environment work together to contribute to the observed racial disparities in HNSCC incidence and survival,” Ragin said. “With this grant we will be able to use novel techniques to look for variations in the genetic make-up in these genes that are unique to African Americans.”

The collaborators anticipate that their findings will help improve early detection and cancer prevention interventions by providing insight into the biology of the disease and factors that contribute to racial disparities.