Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck: Epigenetic Markers

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Dr. Muy-Teck Teh BSc, PhD
Centre for Clinical and Diagnostic Oral Sciences, Institute of Dentistry
Barts & The London School of Medicine and Dentistry
Queen Mary University of London, England, United Kingdom

MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings of the study?

Answer: We found unique DNA markings (epigenetic methylation) on certain genes that may “predict” the risk of developing head and neck cancer. We identified certain DNA methylation marks unique to cancer cells and not found in normal healthy cells.

DNA methylation marks act as ‘switches’ that regulate the ‘on or off’ statuses of genes. Abnormal DNA methylation is known to precede cancer initiation. Hence, the presence of these abnormal DNA methylation marks in cells may be tell-tale signs of early cancer initiation. The chemically distinctive properties of methylated DNA provide ample opportunities for clinical exploitation as nucleic acid-based biomarkers potentially detectable in non-invasive samples such as blood, buccal scrapes, or even saliva.

MedicalResearch.com: Were any of the findings unexpected?

Answer: Our previous study found over 30 abnormal DNA methylation marks in head and neck cancer cells. We did not expect all of these marks lead to abnormal gene expression. In the current study, using two independent patient cohorts from Norway and UK involving a total of 182 clinical specimens, of the 30 we identified only four DNA methylation marks that result in perturbed gene expression in cancer when compared to normal tissues.

MedicalResearch.com: What should clinicians and patients take away from this study?

Answer: These epigenetic markers could be clinically exploited as biomarkers for early pre-cancer screening of head and neck cancer.  However, further work is needed, as we are purely at the discovery stage at the moment and have not used this as a diagnostic test as yet.

MedicalResearch.com: What further research do you recommend as a result of your study?

Answer: The eventual aim would be to test asymptomatic patients and/or people with unknown mouth lesions. An advantage of epigenetic DNA markers is that it may be possible to measure them using non-invasive specimens. So it could enable the use of saliva, buccal scrapes or blood serum for early cancer screening, diagnosis and prognosis.


Hwang, S., Mahadevan, S., Qadir, F., Hutchison, I. L., Costea, D. E., Neppelberg, E., Liavaag, P. G., Waseem, A. and Teh, M.-T. (2013), Identification of FOXM1-induced epigenetic markers for head and neck squamous cell carcinomas. Cancer. doi: 10.1002/cncr.28354

Last Updated on October 3, 2013 by Marie Benz MD FAAD