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University of Iowa News Release

July 15, 2004

UI Researchers Receive Grant To Study Genetic Profiles Of Head, Neck Cancer

University of Iowa researchers have received a five-year, $1.25 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to investigate the gene expression profiles of head and neck cancers.

The study is led by principal investigator Elaine M. Smith, (left) Ph.D., UI professor of epidemiology and obstetrics and gynecology, along with UI co-investigators Lubomir Turek, M.D., professor of pathology, Thomas Haugen, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of pathology and John Lee, M.D., assistant professor of otolaryngology - head and neck surgery, and radiation oncology. Paul G. Ahlquist, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin professor of oncology and molecular virology, is also contributing to the study.

The researchers are seeking to identify signature patterns of gene expression in head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCCs). Gene expression refers to the highly specific process in which a gene is switched on at a certain time and begins production of its protein. Gene expression profiles produce unique patterns -- comparable to fingerprints -- for each tumor type, providing an accurate "snapshot" of which genes are active in a tumor cell.

"The goal of our research is to better understand the process by which normal cells turn cancerous and to discover new tumor markers for diagnosing head and neck cancer," Smith said. "Ultimately, we hope our findings can be used to diagnose this disease earlier, develop more effective, case-specific treatments and predict patient survival."

Head and neck cancer is the term given to a variety of malignant tumors that develop in the mouth, throat and larynx. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 38,000 men and women in the United States developed head and neck cancer in 2002. Major risk factors for HNSCC include alcohol and tobacco use as well as human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.

Using an extensive collection of tissue from HNSCC tumors and normal oral tissue of healthy control patients, the researchers will conduct the most comprehensive gene expression study of HNSCC to date. The team will use this data-intensive analysis to form the basis for a larger epidemiologic study of HNSCC to identify associations between gene expression signatures, the major risk factors for this cancer, and clinical outcomes.

"This project is a collaboration among individuals with expertise in molecular biology, genomics, bioinformatics and epidemiology," Smith noted. "Our joint studies will provide a rich output of data for this project as well as for future studies of head and neck cancers."

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa College of Public Health Office of Communications, 4257 Westlawn, Iowa City, Iowa 52242.

CONTACT(S): Media: Debra Venzke, 319-335-9647, debra-venzke@uiowa.edu

PHOTO: A photo of Elaine Smith is available at http://www.public-health.uiowa.edu/academics/faculty/elaine_smith.html.