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Grants boost head, neck cancer research

BY: DAGNY STUART

11/20/2009 - Wendell (Dell) Yarbrough, M.D., associate professor of Otolaryngology and Cancer Biology, has been awarded two federal Challenge Grants for the study of head and neck cancer.

The two-year grants, totaling more than $1.4 million, are part of the federal government's stimulus package and are funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The Challenge Grants are among the most competitive, with only about 3 percent of applications receiving funding.

“I am very excited and honored to receive these important grant awards to

Wendell (Dell) Yarbrough, M.D.

Wendell (Dell) Yarbrough, M.D.

investigate potential new research and treatment options for Head and Neck cancer,” said Yarbrough, director of the Barry Baker Laboratory for Head and Neck Cancer at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

Head and neck cancers occur in the nasal cavity, sinuses, lips, mouth, salivary glands, throat or larynx (voice box).

It is the fifth most common form of cancer in the United States.

The first grant, funded by the National Cancer Institute, will support human-in-mouse modeling of head and neck squamous cell cancer to predict response to therapy. Yarbrough and his colleagues will share human tumor tissue obtained through Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) programs in lung and head and neck cancer at several cancer centers.

As part of a clinical trial, this inter-SPORE consortium plans to treat patients with agents targeting abnormally active proteins and use pre- and post-treatment biopsies to look for evidence of response to the drugs.

Yarbrough will attempt to do the same thing in a mouse model.

“The human tumors will be treated with the exact same drugs we are using in the mice,” Yarbrough explained. “If the responses are the same, we will have a mouse model that will be useful for future research.”

Yarbrough said effective mouse models allow researchers to speed up the process of testing potential new drugs.

“The advantage of this system is that we can look for combinations of therapy to see if there is any synergy in particular tumors,” said Yarbrough. “We also can analyze those tumors to see if there are genetic markers that are implicated in that response.”

The goal is to create a more efficient drug pipeline, allowing physicians to match patients with specific drugs based on genetic markers within the patients' tumor.

Yarbrough's second research grant, funded by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, supports the development of a mouse model in salivary cancer.

Salivary cancer is rare, so it is difficult to find enough patients for clinical trials.

The salivary cancer VICC physicians see most often is in the parotid gland.

Yarbrough said these are particularly vicious tumors because some attach to nerves, including the nerve that moves the face.

“Our goal is to look for new tools to help characterize these rare tumors,” said Yarbrough. “We will obtain tissue from the operating room and from our biorepository to determine molecular characteristics of these tumors and to culture or insert into mice. If we are successful, it will accelerate our efforts to learn more about these debilitating tumors.”

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