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Head and Neck Cancer Research Leaps Forward With Yale’s NIH SPORE Award

September 20, 2020

The $11.7 million grant will help Yale’s head and neck cancer researchers address critical barriers to the treatment of HNSCC.

Yale Cancer Center researchers were awarded a five-year, $11.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund the Yale Head and Neck Cancer Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE). The SPORE program harnesses the strengths of academic cancer centers by bringing together experts in oncology, immunobiology, pharmacology, molecular biology, pathology, epidemiology, and addiction science to collaborate on projects. The goal of the Yale Head and Neck Cancer SPORE (YHN-SPORE) is to address critical barriers to the treatment of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) due to resistance to immunotherapy, DNA damaging, and targeted therapy.

Head and neck cancer is a devastating disease, with even successful treatments causing significant after effects, and yet research into head and neck cancer is relatively less funded than research into other cancers. Team research will be critical to making progress for people with head and neck cancer, and the award of this SPORE in head and neck cancer will make a significant difference in helping us advance treatment options for this difficult-to-treat disease,” said Barbara Burtness, MD, principal investigator, professor of medicine (medical oncology), and co-leader, Developmental Therapeutics Research Program at Yale Cancer Center. “The grant will facilitate collaborations between basic, translational, and clinical scientists from our labs and institutions around the country to help identify new curative therapies for our patients.”

HNSCC is the seventh most common cancer globally; annually in the United States, over 64,000 cases are diagnosed. Current treatments often result in functional impairment, disfigurement, pain, or increased non-cancer mortality, even for patients who are cured. There are over 13,000 deaths from HNSCC annually. The YHN-SPORE is a collaboration with Fox Chase Cancer Center and the University of North Carolina Lineberger Cancer Center.

“This is very exciting news for Yale Cancer Center and will catapult translational head and neck cancer research at Smilow Cancer Hospital,” said Charles Fuchs, MD, MPH, director of Yale Cancer Center and physician-in-chief at Smilow Cancer Hospital. The Head and Neck Cancers Program team at Smilow Cancer Hospital delivers multidisciplinary, state-of-the-art cancer care for tumors affecting the neck, larynx (voice box), pharynx (throat), oral cavity (mouth), ear, sinuses, tonsils, and salivary glands. The Smilow team also treats cancer affecting cervical (neck) lymph nodes or neck structures.

Fuchs added: “This new SPORE represents a highly translational, transdisciplinary team of researchers who will employ deep disease-based expertise to leverage the extraordinary scientific strength of many different departments at our cancer center and with the outstanding resources of cancer centers around the U.S.”

“The investigators participating in our collaborative head and neck cancer SPORE have had significant and far-reaching impact on the field of HNSCC over the past 20 years through paradigm-shifting translational and clinical research,” said Roy S. Herbst, MD, PhD, chief of medical oncology at Yale Cancer Center and Smilow Cancer Hospital and associate cancer center director for translational research at Yale Cancer Center. “Over the last decade, we have fostered a pilot program focused on building translational research and SPOREs at Yale, and it’s wonderful to have seen this team progress and develop under the leadership of Dr. Burtness.”

The YHN-SPORE is one of three SPOREs awarded to Yale Cancer Center. The Yale SPORE in Lung Cancer conducts research in immunotherapy, precision medicine, and drug development to combat non-small cell lung cancer, which is one of the most prevalent and deadliest forms of cancer. The multidisciplinary experts also work to identify new translational research approaches and train young physician-researchers for careers in lung cancer. The Yale SPORE in Skin Cancer is dedicated to improving the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of melanoma. The research focuses on the use of next-generation DNA sequencing, genomics, transcriptomics, and proteomics to identify biomarkers and targets for therapy.

Originally published Sept. 24, 2020; updated May 16, 2022.

Submitted by Anne Doerr on September 24, 2020