U-M researchers in our Head and Neck Oncology Program are at the forefront of understanding how HPV, or human papillomavirus, plays a role in the recent increase in head and neck cancers. We have documented that the prevalence of HPV in patients with throat cancer presenting to the University of Michigan is approaching epidemic proportions, with over 90% of patients currently having HPV-related throat cancer.
We know patients with HPV-related tumors respond differently to treatment, and our clinical trials seek to understand how we can deliver the most effective treatments with the fewest side effects. Dr. Carol Bradford and Dr. Thomas Carey, along with colleagues in the Head and Neck Oncology Program, discovered that HPV-related throat cancers have improved outcomes related to throat cancers caused by smoking and drinking. Furthermore, they have observed that the beneficial effects of HPV is moderated by a history of tobacco use. This work has informed the development of clinical trials that reduce the toxicity of chemotherapy plus radiation in patients with HPV-related throat cancers.
While most HPV-driven head and neck cancers have a favorable prognosis, a subset are more aggressive. In our laboratory, we are working to discover the genetic changes that can distinguish the aggressive subset of tumors from those that respond well to current therapies. Our long-term objective is to develop tailored treatment approaches for the aggressive forms of HPV-driven head and neck cancers that do not respond well to standard therapies.