Promising Research Underway for Head and Neck Cancer Patients

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Topics include: Treatments and Understanding

What are the targeted and less toxic treatments for head and neck cancers?  Patient Power Founder and Host, Andrew Schorr, interviews Head and Neck Oncologist, Dr. Faye Johnson of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.  Dr. Johnson discusses four promising areas of targeted research in head and neck cancers, including immunotherapy and HPV.  Dr. Johnson stresses that targeted therapies are best found in clinical trials and shares options on how patients can get connected.

This content was sponsored, in part, by a pharmaceutical company.

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Transcript

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you. 

Andrew Schorr:

Hello and welcome to Patient Power. I'm Andrew Schorr. There's a lot of work going on to make treatments more targeted and less toxic in cancer, and, of course, that's going on in head and neck cancer. 

Joining us now is a leading medical oncologist who researches in the field and helps move treatment along. That's Dr. Faye Johnson at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.  Dr. Johnson, thank you so much for being with us. 

Dr. Johnson:

Thank you for having me.

Andrew Schorr:

So tell us, where are we now in research, what treatments, prospective treatments are promising for people with head and neck cancer?  

Dr. Johnson:

There are really four areas of research that I think are particularly promising right now.  The first one, of course, is immunotherapy, and that's gotten a lot of press recently in a lot of other cancers, but it's also been effective in head and neck cancers.  In fact, recently, clinical data came out for patients with metastatic head and neck squamous-cell carcinoma that show that one of the immunotherapy drugs works very well. The drug company that owns that drug has filed for an approval with the FDA, and we fully expect for that drug to get approved, because the data look really good.  

Here at MD Anderson and in other places, we're doing additional research in the field of immunotherapy with head and neck squamous?cell carcinoma, and we're trying to come up with better therapies with combinations and to advance the field.  We're also doing work with cancers other than squamous cancers, other types of head and neck cancers, and those data also look very promising.

A second area of research that's very promising are targeted therapies.  These are therapies that try to take advantage of the molecular vulnerabilities of cancer cells, and we have a number of studies going on in the lab right you now to try and identify those molecular vulnerabilities.  This has really been a challenge in head and neck cancer because unlike other cancers like lung cancer, which is driven by activating oncogenes. Head and neck cancer seems to be driven mostly by the loss of tumor suppressor genes, and that's harder for us to drug.  And so it's been more of a challenge, but we have some really nice leads in the lab that we're planning to take into the clinic over the next several years.  

The third area of research is trying to predict responses to therapy.  We know that chemotherapy and radiation, although these are older therapies, they're actually very effective in our patients, and, in fact, lead to cures in about half of our patients.  But we also know that half of the people recur, and there are people who don't respond to chemotherapy or radiation, so we're working on ways to try to figure out who those patients are, and this would have a huge benefit.

First, you could avoid those toxic therapies in patients who we know are not going to respond.  In addition, those patients who we know are going to have a fantastic response, we could potentially give them less therapy, less radiation and less chemo and thereby engender less toxic effects.  

A fourth area of really promising research is that that addresses the HPV or the human papillomavirus. We've seen an epidemic in HPV-driven cancers, particularly of the oropharynx in the past decade, and this is starting to eclipse the tobacco-driven cancers that we saw previously. So we have a moon shot funding through the institution, through generous donations, and we're really focusing on treating HPV cancers and coming up with better ways to treat HPV?driven cancers.

Andrew Schorr:

It sounds like there is a lot going on in research, but, of course, patients want to speed this along. How can they do that? Participate in clinical trials? What's their responsibility here? 

Dr. Johnson:

So there are a number of different clinical trials that run constantly in our department, in our sister departments at MD Anderson and throughout the world.  If a patient is interested in going on a clinical trial, the best source of information would be that patient's cancer expert team, usually the medical oncologist. 

So in head and neck thoracic medical oncology, we have a number of trials including immunotherapies and targeted therapies. Our sister department, targeted therapy, which just focuses on running clinical trials, also has a number of different clinical trials running, and we often work those faculty to find the best clinical trial. 

There are patients who can't come to Houston for treatment, at least not in the long term, or sometimes there's actually a trial somewhere else in the world that we don't have here. And we can help patients to use Internet resources and consult with colleagues throughout the world to find the right trial for the right patient, whether that be here or somewhere else. 

Andrew Schorr:

Dr. Faye Johnson, medical oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center, thank you so much for being with us and sharing your insights for families touched by head and neck cancer. 

Dr. Johnson:

Thank you.  Thank you for having me.  

Andrew Schorr:

I'm Andrew Schorr. Be sure to be signed up for alerts on our website, so you'll know whenever we post something new. Remember, knowledge can be the best medicine of all. 

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you. 

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Page last updated on October 4, 2016