Grandis, Argiris Receive Patent for New Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

Issue Date: 
February 1, 2010

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have been awarded a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for the development of a new DNA therapy for head and neck cancers. The therapy targets the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), a protein found on the surface of many types of cancer cells that causes them to multiply.

Standard treatments for head and neck cancers often are ineffective and tend to have debilitating side effects, explained Jennifer R. Grandis, a professor of otolaryngology and pharmacology at Pitt and director of the Head and Neck Program at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI). “We set out to develop an alternative approach that is safe and effective for these cancers,” she said.

The new treatment is based on a form of genetic therapy called “antisense,” or AS, in which a synthesized strand of DNA or RNA targets the EGFR genes within a head and neck tumor. The therapy blocks the production of a protein produced by the gene. According to Grandis, expectations were exceeded in a phase I study of the therapy that was designed primarily to determine the safety and potential toxicity of EGFR AS injections in patients with advanced head and neck cancers.

“Not only were the AS injections well tolerated, but tumors disappeared or shrank considerably in 29 percent of the patients,” Grandis said. “These results show that EGFR AS therapy has great potential as a safe, effective treatment.”

A phase II clinical trial evaluating the safety and efficacy of EGFR AS injections in combination with the drug cetuximab and radiation therapy will soon be open for eligible patients. According to Ethan Argiris, a professor of medicine at Pitt and principal investigator of the phase II trial, the study will enroll patients 70 years of age or older with advanced head and neck cancers who aren’t eligible for cisplatin, the chemotherapy often used to treat head and neck cancers.

Head and neck cancers are a group of biologically similar cancers originating from the upper aerodigestive tract, including the lip, mouth, nasal cavity, paranasal sinuses, pharynx, and larynx, that affect more than 45,000 individuals in the United States each year. Head and neck cancers are strongly associated with environmental and lifestyle risk factors, including tobacco smoking, alcohol consumption, and certain strains of the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus.