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According to the results of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, genetic alterations in the connective tissue (stroma) that surrounds head and neck cancers are common and appear to contribute to cancer growth and aggressiveness.

Head and neck cancers originate in the throat, larynx (voice box), pharynx, salivary glands, or oral cavity (lip, mouth, tongue). Most head and neck cancers involve squamous cells, which are cells that line the mouth, throat, or other structures.

Cancer-causing agents that have been linked with head and neck cancer, such as tobacco smoke, may contribute to cancer by causing genetic alterations within a cell. These alterations may occur not only in cells that eventually become cancerous (in this case squamous cells) but also in surrounding cells. Changes in these surrounding cells may alter the environment in which the cancer grows and may influence cancer growth or spread.

To explore genetic changes in cancer cells and adjacent stromal (connective tissue) cells, researchers conducted a study among 122 patients with squamous cell cancer of the head or neck.

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  • Genetic alterations were common in cancer cells as well as surrounding stromal cells.
  • Certain genetic alterations were linked with cancer aggressiveness. The researchers identified genetic alterations in stromal cells that were linked with cancer size and lymph node involvement. The researchers also identified changes in cancer cells that were linked with cancer stage.

The researchers conclude that genetic alterations in the tissue surrounding head and neck cancers appear to contribute to the development of these cancers. These findings may allow for the development of new prognostic markers or new targeted therapies for head and neck cancer.

Reference: Weber F, Xu Yaomin, Zhang L et al. Microenvironmental Genomic Alterations and Clinicopathological Behavior in Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2007;297:187-195.