20/12/2022

A biomarker has been identified in patients with head and neck cancer that will help to avoid unnecessary surgery

This finding will make it possible to personalise treatments and in some cases find alternatives to operations that involve significant aesthetic and physical damage that reduces the patient's quality of life.

Endocrinologist examining throat of young woman in clinic. Women with thyroid gland test . Endocrinology, hormones and treatment. Inflammation of the sore throat

Cancers of the head and neck are the sixth most common type of cancer in the world (between 200 and 250 cases are diagnosed every year in Tarragona). For a long time now, tobacco and alcohol have been the main risk factors and most of people who develop the disease belong to the group that consumed the most of these substances: men between 50 and 70 years of age. In recent years, however, the patient profile has changed, as the increase in the number of cases of young people with human papilloma has led to an increase in this type of cancer. Now, a research group at the URV and the Pere Virgili Institute for Health Research (IISPV) has identified a biomarker related to the metabolism of sugar – which plays a key role in the development of cancer – that will allow a much more accurate and personalised prognosis.

The personalisation of treatments will prevent many patients from having to undergo the surgery that has hitherto been the norm for this type of tumour. These operations have many physical and aesthetic repercussions for patients, and also entail significant costs for the health system. “In some cases these operations leave holes in the patient’s neck, or parts of their throat or tongue have to be removed, for example,” explains F. Xavier Avilés, a researcher at the URV-IISPV and a doctor at the Joan XXIII University Hospital in Tarragona, who took part in the study.

The results of this research will make it possible to search for this metabolic agent in blood –so-called liquid biopsy – and, depending on the results obtained, it will be possible to determine the level of aggressiveness of the tumour. This means that treatments can be personalised and patients can be offered the therapy that best suits the development and prognosis of their cancer, “as surgery is not the only option: they can also be treated with radiotherapy, chemotherapy or a combination of the two,” explains the researcher.

Other participants in the research are the Research Institute of the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau in Barcelona-IBB Sant Pau, its Otorhinolaryngology and Cervicofacial Pathology Department and the Hospital Verge de la Cinta in Tortosa.

What is head and neck cancer?

This type of cancer appears in the area of the mouth, tongue, nose, throat and pharynx. Symptoms are a lump or tumour on the neck or face or a sore in the mouth that does not go away after a few days. Other signs may include difficulty swallowing food, ear ache when swallowing, changes in the voice that do not improve after two weeks, blood in the saliva or bloody fluid in the nose.

If these symptoms are detected – especially in patients who smoke or drink alcohol on a regular basis – it is recommended that they see an ear, nose and throat specialist as soon as possible, as early diagnosis of this type of cancer is crucial.

Bibliographical references: Silvia Bagué, Xavier León, Ximena Terra, Marylène Lejeune, Mercedes Camacho, Francesc-Xavier Avilés-Jurado. Prognostic capacity of the transcriptional expression of lactate dehydrogenase A in patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. Head Neck 2022;44(11):2505-2512. doi: 10.1002/hed.27161.

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