NIH Reports that Squamous Cell Carcinoma Differs from Other Cancers

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National Institutes of Health researchers use genomics to show that squamous cell carcinomas differ from other cancers, which could advance treatments for head and neck and other cancers.

Study results by researchers supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggest that squamous cell carcinoma is different at the molecular level from other types of cancers. By uncovering molecular characteristics that link the genomic profiles for squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs) from five areas of the body, the researchers showed that SCCs are set apart from other cancers, according to an April 5, 2018 press release from NIH.

The researchers used a dataset of SCCs from the head and neck, lung, esophagus, cervix, and bladder, and found defining characteristics in subtypes of SCCs associated with tobacco use or human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. This research may lead to more effective diagnosis and treatment of these cancers by helping researchers develop tailored strategies for specific cancer subtypes.

The published study was led by Carter Van Waes, MD, PhD, and his colleague, Zhong Chen, MD, PhD, from the Head and Neck Surgery Branch of NIH’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). They collaborated with teams of researchers across the United States and Canada through The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) consortium, a joint effort of the NIH’s National Cancer Institute (NCI) and National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).

This latest study is one of 27 that have been published in April 2018 describing the results from PanCancer Atlas, a detailed analysis from a dataset containing molecular and clinical information on more than 10,000 tumors from 33 forms of cancer. The PanCancer Atlas is a culmination of more than a decade of work by more than 150 TCGA researchers at institutions across North America.

New avenues of research

The new study expands on research reported by TCGA researchers in 2014 and 2015, which compared genomic features of SCCs in head and neck cancer associated with smoking or HPV. Researchers found that certain features were present in tumors associated with both smoking and HPV, while others were exclusive to only one of the two. They also found similarities in the genomic characteristics of head and neck cancers with lung cancers, some bladder cancers, and cervical cancer.


“We need better ways to treat head and neck cancers so we can preserve patients’ voices and improve their quality of life,” said Van Waes, NIDCD clinical director and chief of the NIDCD Head and Neck Surgery Branch, in the institute’s press release. “These findings provide us with important insights into these cancers and some squamous cell cancers in other areas of the body that will help us target pathways for prevention and treatment.”

For the current study, the researchers used new analytic tools to analyze deeper the similarities and differences among SCCs in the head and neck, lung, esophagus, cervix, and bladder. Using the recently completed PanCancer Atlas, the researchers combined multiple platforms of genomic data from 1400 SCC samples into integrated analyses, which created visual clusters of tumors based on their genomic characteristics.

The researchers found that SCCs in the five areas studied have certain similar genomic features that set them apart from other types of cancers. The most common shared alterations are gains or losses of a section of certain chromosomes. This makes it likely that these regions harbor genes important in the development of SCCs. These changes affect the expression of many more genes than previously believed, which enables new avenues for research.

In addition, the researchers found that the subsets of SCCs associated with smoking and HPV have distinct genomic signatures. SCCs associated with HPV tend to have fewer of the gains or losses in sections of chromosomes. Instead, the researchers found that HPV-associated tumors have mutations in the DNA or other chemical modifications in certain genes.

“Analyses on this scale are only possible with a large dataset, such as PanCancer Atlas, and the tireless efforts of more than 50 researchers involved in looking at squamous cell cancers,” Chen said in the press release.

Source: NIH