Head and neck cancer is relatively rare in the United States, accounting for only about 3% of cancer cases. About 60,000 people will be diagnosed with head or neck cancer, and 13,000 of those will die from it. One group of researchers, at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center is leading the way for new approaches to this disease.
The normal protocol for treatment of head and neck cancer is a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. The problem is that nearly half of patients do not see success with this treatment. Dr. Joanne Weidhaas at the JCCC is looking at a new drug, cetuximab, to see if results can be improved. Some patients did well on it, but some did not. Initially doctors could not tell why one person would get well and another would not but Weidhaas and her team discovered that cetuximab worked for patients who had a genetic mutation of the KRAS variant. This mutation results in a decreased immune system, so patients with it were less able to fight off cancer. Cetuximab helped boost the immune system and that's why it worked for these patients. More research is underway to find ways to tailor treatment to the individual patients, so outcomes can be improved.