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Researchers take cancer by the head and neck

Head and neck cancer is the sixth most common form of the disease in the world and the prognosis for people diagnosed late is poor.

A team of researchers at the University of Technology, Sydney, has been working to increase the likelihood of head and neck cancer being diagnosed early and of people surviving after diagnosis.

Dr Nham Tran, who runs the ncRNA Cancer group at the university, said 600,000 people are diagnosed with head and neck cancer worldwide every year, and 3000 Australians are diagnosed with oral cancer a year.

“What's concerning is that a lot of the patients who are diagnosed with oral cancer are presented late in the disease,” Tran said. “Most often these people are coming in at stage 3 or 4.

“The challenge for us at the moment is to find a set of markers that allows for the early detection of oral cancer. If we can detect these patients at an earlier stage, we can save their lives.”

Tran and his team have been working to develop that set of markers for the past two years.

“We found six types of these small RNA markers in the blood of early stage 1 and 2 oral cancer patients and we believe they're indicative of early detection," Tran said. “These small RNAs, known as microRNA, are found in your blood and elevated levels of [them] indicate the patient possibly has early stage 1 or 2 oral cancer. We're quite excited about this because it's the first time there will be a kit available for detecting early-stage oral cancer.”

PhD student Pamela Ajuyah, who is part of the ncRNA Cancer group, said the team decided to focus on head and neck cancer, as it has many different sub-sites, making it confusing.

“It's not like, for example, breast cancer, which just focuses on, basically, breast tissue," Ajuyah explained. "Head and neck cancer refers to cancers of the larynx, the pharynx, salivary glands – it has quite a broad spectrum. As a result, the molecular pathways can become quite hard to pinpoint to understand exactly what leads to cancer progression.”

Ajuyah’s research focuses on small strands of ribonucleic acid (microRNA) that are continuously created from the human genome.

“MicroRNA are the ultimate gene inhibitors,” Ajuyah said. “And cancer cells can take advantage of this situation. Cancer cells can hijack these microRNA by suppressing their expression, which prevents their normal function. On the other hand, cancer cells can also increase the expression of specific microRNA to promote cancer development. When this regulatory system is corrupted, cancer cells may acquire the ability to migrate and metastasis can occur.”

Ajuyah identified two microRNA, known as miR-21 and miR-499, which the team said could promote migration in head and neck cancer cells.

“Leading on from this, if these microRNA are responsible for metastasis, is it possible for us to inhibit these microRNA and perhaps prevent migration? That's what I've moved onto now, where we want to inhibit these microRNA and see if we observe a reversal of migration,” she said.

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