Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month: April 2023

Posted April 27, 2023

April is Head and Neck Cancer Awareness month, dedicated to bringing awareness to this group of cancers that collectively account for nearly 4% of all cancers in the United States, as reported in a recent CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians publication.1 Head and neck cancers develop in or around the throat, larynx (or voice box), nose, sinuses, and mouth. The biggest risk factors are tobacco use, including smokeless forms, alcohol, and infection with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV). Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are the most common treatment options; however, disease recurrence is common and more targeted therapies are needed to improve patient outcomes and quality of life, as reported in the journal Cell Death and Disease.2

Since fiscal year 2020 (FY20), the Rare Cancers Research Program (RCRP) has funded five projects focused on different types of head and neck cancers, totaling nearly $1.5 million.

Molecularly Defined Models for Hypopharyngeal Cancer Patient Subsets

Dr. Jackson Dr. Pilgrim Jackson
(Photo Provided)

According to an Annals of Oncology report, hypopharyngeal cancer has one of the worst survival rates of any of the head and neck cancers.3 Dr. Pilgrim Jackson at the biotechnology company Yatiri Bio, based in California, received an FY20 Concept Award to complete global analysis of protein expression in hypopharyngeal cancer biopsy samples. The team will complete analysis to define patients at a molecular level and develop models to guide clinical decisions and predict patient outcomes. Finally, they will also complete drug screening to identify potential therapeutics.

Targeting FOXA1-Mediated Epigenetic Reprogramming in Aggressive Salivary Gland Cancer

Dr. Udager Dr. Aaron Udager
(Photo Provided)

Dr. Aaron Udager and his team at the University of Michigan received an FY20 Concept Award focused on understanding the molecular basis of salivary duct carcinoma. Salivary duct carcinoma is a rare aggressive type of salivary gland cancer that is resistant to chemotherapy and has a high mortality rate, as described in a Clinical Cancer Research article.4 Dr. Udager aims to complete next generation sequencing to characterize RNA expression and epigenomic signatures, chemical changes to DNA, across salivary duct carcinoma samples. The team will also generate three-dimensional cell cultures from patient-derived samples and examine the responsiveness to a novel therapeutic.

Additional FY21 Awards Focused on Head and Neck Cancers

In FY21, the RCRP funded one Concept Award to Dr. Nicholas Clemons at the University of Melbourne, who is investigating the effects of cell-cycle checkpoint inhibitors that can lead to cancer cell death in esophageal cancer. Dr. David Lee at the University of New Mexico received an Idea Development Award to determine the molecular mechanisms driving the development of acinic cell carcinoma. Finally, Dr. Daniel Pelaez at the University of Miami Coral Gables will utilize his Idea Development Award to develop an oncolytic virus, a type of immunotherapy that uses viruses for targeting and destroying adenoid cystic carcinoma cells.

Thad Lurie: HPV-Mediated Oropharyngeal Cancer Survivor

Thad and family Thad Lurie with his wife and family    (Photo Provided)

In 2019, Thad Lurie noticed a pea-sized lump on the side of his neck. After several tests and a referral to a head and neck specialist, the lump was determined to be oropharyngeal cancer and probably human papillomavirus (HPV)-mediated, and he was referred to an oncologist to start treatment. After his diagnosis, Thad was inspired to “pay it forward” and help other people going through treatment. He joined the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance and worked with the American Society for Radiation Oncology. Through the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance, he learned about the Rare Cancer Research Program (RCRP) and joined the RCRP as a consumer peer reviewer in 2020, and again in 2021. While he did not have a scientific background, his lived experience with the disease was incredibly important in shaping the research being done for head and neck cancer. He has also appreciated learning about the cutting-edge science being researched for people like him.

“I feel like the scientific community respects my survivor status, and I certainly appreciate their commitment to the field and to helping cancer patients have better and more efficacious experiences through treatment,” Thad said.

In 2022, Thad continued his advocacy efforts and transitioned to the Peer Reviewed Cancer Research Program’s head and neck peer review panel. As an advocate, he hopes that he can help others with head and neck cancer, both in supporting people with cancer diagnoses and reminding people that the HPV vaccine prevents most HPV-related cancers.

The views, opinions, and/or findings contained in this paper are those of the author(s) and should not be construed as an official Department of the Army position, policy or decision.


1Siegel RL, Miller KD, Fuchs HE, et al. 2021. Cancer statistics, 2021. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians 71(1):7-33. doi: 10.3322/caac.21654 Epub 2021 Jan 12. Erratum in: CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians 2021 Jul;71(4):359. PMID: 33433946.

2Alsahafi E, Begg K, Amelio I, et al. 2019. Clinical update on head and neck cancer: Molecular biology and ongoing challenges. Cell Death & Disease 10(8):540. doi: 10.1038/s41419-019-1769-9. PMID: 31308358; PMCID: PMC6629629.

3Giraldi L, Leoncini E, Pastorino R, et al. 2017. Alcohol and cigarette consumption predict mortality in patients with head and neck cancer: A pooled analysis within the International Head and Neck Cancer Epidemiology (INHANCE) Consortium. Annals of Oncology 28(11):2843-2851. doi: 10.1093/annonc/mdx486. PMID: 28945835; PMCID: PMC5834132.

4Dalin MG, Desrichard A, Katabi N, et al. 2016. Comprehensive molecular characterization of salivary duct carcinoma reveals actionable targets and similarity to apocrine breast cancer. Clinical Cancer Research 22(18):4623-33. doi: 10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-16-0637. Epub 2016 Apr 21. PMID: 27103403; PMCID: PMC5026550.

Public and Technical Abstracts: Molecularly Defined Models for Hypopharyngeal Cancer Patient Subsets - Jackson
Public and Technical Abstracts: Targeting FOXA1-Mediated Epigenetic Reprogramming in Aggressive Salivary Gland Cancer - Udager
Public and Technical Abstracts: Exploiting Synthetic Lethal Interactions for Esophageal Cancer Therapies - Clemons
Public and Technical Abstracts: Epigenetic Regulation of Acinic Cell Carcinoma Development - Lee
Public and Technical Abstracts: Oncolytic Viruses for the Treatment of Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma - Palaez

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Last updated Thursday, April 27, 2023