Blood Test May Predict Tumor Metastasis in Head and Neck Cancers


In a new study, Australian researchers present findings on how a simple blood test may reveal which cases of head and neck cancers will spread to other organs.

Researchers in Australia are developing a simple test using blood samples to determine if patients with rare head and neck cancers are at risk of having their cancer spread to other organs.

According to the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Cancer Institute, head and neck cancers make up about 4% of all cancer cases in the United States. Individuals who have been diagnosed with head or neck cancer are at greater risk of developing secondary cancer, such as in the esophagus or lungs, and the chance is higher for those who consume tobacco or alcohol products.

Just who is at risk for developing secondary cancers, or distant metastasis, has been the focus of researchers from Australia’s Queensland University of Technology. In a recent study published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, the researchers say they’ve found that a simple liquid biopsy using blood samples may help predict which head and neck cancer cases may spread. In a study of 60 patients with head and neck cancers, the research team examined blood samples containing clusters of circulating tumor cells (CTCs) — which are shed from primary or secondary tumors and then circulate in patients’ blood – using a device developed by the team to separate single CTCs and CTC clusters from the blood of cancer patients.

In blood samples collected from 15 of the 60 patients with recently diagnosed stage IV locally advanced head and neck cancer which had not spread to other organs, the team identified clusters of CTCs. “We found that the presence or absence of short-lived CTC clusters in patients who had locally advanced head and neck cancer was associated with the spread of cancer to other organs,” explained the head of the research team, Chamindie Punyadeera, PhD, in a recent statement. “The preliminary study found that six of the seven patients with stage IV head and neck cancer who had CTC clusters went on to develop lung or liver secondary cancers within six months. In contrast, we found that the absence of CTCs or CTC clusters in patients with head and neck cancer may indicate no systemic spread.”

While CTC clusters may be important indicators of spreading cancers, the study notes that further in vivo and in vitro studies will help determine the role of these CTC clusters and whether leukocyte involvement in CTC clusters has clinical relevance.

Next, the research team will be conducting a longitudinal study of 100 patients, with funding from a Federal Government Cancer Australia grant. “Research on single CTCs has shown they have clinical significance in predicting the course of cancer but understanding the role of clusters of CTCs in cancer spread has been limited,” said Dr Punyadeera. “This finding is potentially an important prognostic tool that could guide doctors’ choice of therapies as we move to personalized medicine for individual patients. This work has been expanded into lung cancers where there are more targeted therapies.”

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