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Protein Expression to Serve as Marker for Head and Neck Cancer

Recent studies have revealed that the blood of patients with head and neck cancer have some unique patterns of protein expression which could serve as a screening test for this highly aggressive cancer. //

Studies comparing protein expression in 78 patients with head and neck cancer to 68 healthy controls revealed numerous differences in protein expression, Medical College of Georgia researchers say.

‘We found scores and scores of proteins that were differentially expressed,’ says Dr. Christine Gourin, MCG otolaryngologist specializing in head and neck cancer and the study’s lead author. ‘We found there are at least eight proteins whose expression significantly differs between controls and people with cancer.’

This protein fingerprint correctly classified study participants as cancer patients with a high degree of sensitivity and specificity – 82 percent and 76 percent, respectively, according to research published in the current issue of Archives of Otolaryngology.

‘If these results hold up over time, they would suggest that this would be a good screening test for at-risk people,’ Dr. Gourin says. ‘Right now there is no good, effective screening test for head and neck cancer short of physical examination. Unfortunately it takes the development of symptoms to warrant a visit to the doctor, such as a sore throat; ear, tongue or mouth pain; painful eating or swallowing; or a change in the voice. Sometimes the first sign is a lump in the neck which is already a sign of an advanced tumor that has spread to the lymph nodes.’

Belated diagnoses translate to fairly dismal survival rates: less than 50 percent five years following diagnosis of stage three or four tumors, Dr. Gourin says. The rare patient who is diagnosed early faces much better odds: voice box cancer caught in stage one has about a 95 percent five-year survival, for example.

The goal is to screen high-risk populations – those with a history of alcoho
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