Exploring biomarkers in head and neck cancer

Cancer. 2012 Aug 15;118(16):3882-92. doi: 10.1002/cncr.26718. Epub 2012 Jan 26.


Personalized medicine based on predictive markers linked to drug response, it is hoped, will lead to improvements in outcomes and avoidance of unnecessary treatment in squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN). Recent research has shown that expression of ERCC1 may predict resistance to treatment with platinum agents. Future testing for this marker may help select the optimal type of chemotherapy. Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) is associated with less aggressive disease and better prognosis in locally advanced SCCHN treated with chemoradiation or radiation alone; HPV-positive patients may ultimately benefit from less intensive, less toxic therapy. K-RAS mutations, occurring in about 40% of colorectal cancers and associated with lack of benefit from epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) antibodies in this disease, are found in <5% of SCCHN patients, making routine testing for K-RAS mutations unwarranted at this time. Virtually all head and neck tumors overexpress EGFR, which limits the usefulness of EGFR expression as a marker for treatment selection. Although the incidence of EGFR tyrosine kinase domain mutations is very rare, a better understanding of the role of EGFR mutations, expression, amplification, and downstream effects in SCCHN may help define the role of EGFR in this setting. These observations caution against extrapolating results obtained with biomarkers in other types of cancer to SCCHN. Validation of each biomarker in the context of SCCHN clinical trials will be required before a specific marker can be incorporated into daily practice.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / analysis*
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / diagnosis*
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / metabolism
  • Endonucleases / metabolism
  • Genes, erbB-1
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Humans
  • Mutation
  • Papillomaviridae / isolation & purification
  • Ribonucleoside Diphosphate Reductase
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck
  • Tubulin / metabolism
  • Tumor Suppressor Proteins / metabolism


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • DNA-Binding Proteins
  • Tubulin
  • Tumor Suppressor Proteins
  • RRM1 protein, human
  • Ribonucleoside Diphosphate Reductase
  • ERCC1 protein, human
  • Endonucleases