Advances in molecular diagnostics and therapeutics in head and neck cancer

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Opinion statement

Extensive treatment-related morbidities and stagnant survival rates over the past few decades for patients with squamous cell cancer of the head and neck (SCCHN) emphasize the need for novel diagnostics and therapeutics based on the molecular characteristics of the tumor. The development of an early detection test remains largely preliminary. Much attention has recently been given to saliva-based early detection assays that use accepted tumor markers such as p53 and DNA methylation. Most of these studies have focused on feasibility as opposed to prospective clinical trials. To date, early detection saliva assays have failed to yield a high enough sensitivity and specificity for broad population-based screening. The use of saliva as a noninvasive, inexpensive, and accessible diagnostic substrate remains desirable. Unlike SCCHN diagnostics, molecular-targeted therapies for SCCHN will soon be a reality, with many more compounds in the pipeline. The most promising of these drugs target the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), which is known to be overexpressed in squamous cell carcinomas. Cetuximab, a monoclonal EGFR antibody, has shown efficacy in combination with radiotherapy in advanced SCCHN in a recent phase III trial and is currently being petitioned for US Food and Drug Administration approval. Likewise, erlotinib, an EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitor, has shown favorable results in phase II trials as monotherapy and in combination with chemotherapy. Gefitinib, another EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitor, has shown efficacy as monotherapy, in combination with chemotherapy, and with chemoradiotherapy. At least two phase III trials of gefitinib in patients with advanced SCCHN are ongoing. Such low-toxicity, tumor-specific targeting strategies will soon be available for patients with head and neck cancer. The challenge is to establish assays to determine which patients are most likely to benefit from these agents.