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Blood test may detect early recurrence of head and neck cancer

CANCER DIGEST – Sept. 9, 2023 – Two studies show promising path to earlier detection of recurrence of head and neck cancers, according to researchers at the University of Michigan Health Rogel Cancer Center.

One study published in the May 10, 2023 journal Cancer looked at the patterns of recurrence of head and neck cancers gathered from survival data of 447 patients treated between 1998 and 2019 who had recurrence or had their cancers spread to other parts of the body.

The researchers found that patients with human papillomavirus-positive (HPV+) cancers had better survival outcomes, but if they had recurrence, it tended to be metastatic, or recur in other parts of the body much later. Patients with HPV negative cancers on the other hand, tended to recur sooner and died sooner. Average survival of HPV positive patients was 18.0 months compared to 8.9 months for those whose cancers were HPV negative.

Based on that data and the hypothesis that detecting recurrence earlier could extend survival, the researchers aimed to develop a blood test that would detect recurrence much earlier than is now possible.

“When metastatic head and neck cancer returns, it impacts their quality of life and can be disfiguring, interfering with the ability to talk, swallow, and even breathe,” Paul Swiecicki, M.D., senior author on the paper and associate medical director for the Oncology Clinical Trials Support Unit at Rogel, said in a press release. “As of now, there’s no test to monitor for its recurrence except watching for symptoms or potentially using a blood test which may not detect cancer until shortly before it clinically recurs.”

The team eventually developed a highly sensitive test that detects nine different pieces of HPV genetic DNA all at once. The result was that the new blood test detected HPV approximately 20 months earlier than conventional tests. The results of this research were published in the August 2023 journal Oral Oncology.

“It’s exciting to have the ability to potentially detect cancer before it's incurable and offer us a window for clinical trials to see if we could intervene on cancer to help give people both a better quality of life and perhaps longer quality of life, and even convert their disease from incurable to curable," Swiecicki said in a press release. "We don't know if that's the case yet, but this is the first tool needed for that to develop.”

Sources: University of Michigan Medicine press release, the journals Cancer and Oral Oncology


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