Standard treatments for head and neck cancers often are ineffective and tend to have debilitating side effects, explained Jennifer R. Grandis, M.D., professor of otolaryngology and pharmacology at Pitt and director of the Head and Neck Program at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI). “We set out to develop an alternative approach that is safe and effective for these cancers,” she said.
The new treatment is based on a form of genetic therapy called “antisense,” or AS, in which a synthesized strand of DNA or RNA targets the EGFR genes within a head and neck tumor. The therapy blocks the production of a protein produced by the gene. According to Dr. Grandis, expectations were exceeded in a phase I study of the therapy that was designed primarily to determine the safety and potential toxicity of EGFR AS injections in patients with advanced head and neck cancers.
“Not only were the AS injections well-tolerated, but tumors disappeared or shrank considerably in 29 percent of the patients,” said Dr. Grandis. “These results show that EGFR AS therapy has great potential as a safe, effective treatment.”
A phase II clinical trial evaluating the safety and efficacy of EGFR AS injections in combination with the drug cetuximab and radiation therapy will soon be open for eligible patients. According to Ethan Argiris, M.D., professor of medicine at Pitt and principal investigator of the trial, the study will enroll patients 70 years of age or older with advanced head and neck cancers, who aren’t eligible for cisplatin, the chemotherapy often used to treat head and neck cancers.
Head and neck cancers are a group of biologically similar cancers originating from the upper aerodigestive tract, including the lip, mouth, nasal cavity, paranasal sinuses, pharynx and larynx, that affect more than 45,000 individuals in the U.S. each year. Head and neck cancers are strongly associated with environmental and lifestyle risk factors, including tobacco smoking, alcohol consumption and certain strains of the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus.
About the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine
As one of the nation’s leading academic centers for biomedical research, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine integrates advanced technology with basic science across a broad range of disciplines in a continuous quest to harness the power of new knowledge and improve the human condition. Driven mainly by the School of Medicine and its affiliates, Pitt has ranked among the top 10 recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health since 1997 and now ranks fifth in the nation, according to preliminary data for fiscal year 2008. Likewise, the School of Medicine is equally committed to advancing the quality and strength of its medical and graduate education programs, for which it is recognized as an innovative leader, and to training highly skilled, compassionate clinicians and creative scientists well-equipped to engage in world-class research. The School of Medicine is the academic partner of UPMC, which has collaborated with the University to raise the standard of medical excellence in Pittsburgh and to position health care as a driving force behind the region’s economy. For more information about the School of Medicine, see www.medschool.pitt.edu.
As the only NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center in western Pennsylvania, UPCI is a recognized leader in providing innovative cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis, and treatment; bio-medical research; compassionate patient care and support; and community-based outreach services. UPCI investigators are world-renowned for their work in clinical and basic cancer research.