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Estrogen May Play Role in Rising Rates of Head, Neck Cancer

TUESDAY, Jan. 4 (HealthDay News) -- Rates of head and neck cancer are rising among some groups of people, including young women without any known risk factors. Now, a study suggests that estrogen may help the cancer spread by boosting the movement of precancerous cells in the mouth.

Previous research found that the body changes how it handles estrogen after the lungs are exposed to smoke. This may lead to lung cancer.

In the new study, researchers examined how estrogen affects cells that are cancerous or primed to become cancerous. They found that an enzyme called CYP1B1 is linked to reproduction in precancerous cells.

"In the future, we would like to find a natural or dietary agent to deplete the CYP1B1 enzyme and see if we can prevent oral cancer at the precancerous stage," Ekaterina Shatalova, a postdoctoral fellow at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, said in a news release from the American Association for Cancer Research.

"Our previous studies showed that the CYP1B1 enzyme sits at the hub of changes that occur in the lungs after smoke exposure. We were now able to look at its role in a more direct fashion by removing it from precancerous cells of the oral cavity," Margie Clapper, co-leader of the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at Fox Chase Cancer Center, explained in the news release.

"We found that cells lacking it move slower," Clapper added. "CYP1B1 could be a wonderful target in precancerous lesions of the head and neck because, by attacking it, we might stop these lesions from progressing or moving to a more advanced stage."

The findings could help researchers "understand factors that cause head and neck cancer, in addition to the traditional risk factors of tobacco and alcohol exposure," according to Dr. Jennifer R. Grandis, director of the Head and Neck Cancer Program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

But the findings won't be confirmed until researchers do more work in people, the study authors noted.

The study is published in the January issue of Cancer Prevention Research.

More information

For more on head and neck cancer, visit the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

-- Randy Dotinga

SOURCE: American Association for Cancer Research, news release, Jan. 4, 2011

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