Collaborative Research, Amazing Results: Pathology Core Supports Translational Head and Neck Cancer Research

In 2016, the UW Department of Human Oncology and the UW Carbone Cancer Center received the state’s first grant to establish a Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE).


In 2016, the UW Department of Human Oncology and the UW Carbone Cancer Center received the state's first grant to establish a Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE)


Four years ago, researchers at the UW Carbone Cancer Center underwent a dynamic shift in how they approached efforts to improve outcomes for patients with head and neck cancer in Wisconsin. Now, it's clear that these efforts are having a big impact.


In 2016, the UW Department of Human Oncology and the UW Carbone Cancer Center received the state's first grant to establish a Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE). This SPORE promotes multidisciplinary research to improve treatments for patients suffering from some of the most challenging types of cancers involving the mouth, neck and throat.


"Many head and neck cancer patients wear their battle scars in public - they can lose their ability to speak, taste and swallow naturally," said Paul Harari, MD, the principal investigator of the head and neck SPORE and chairman of the UW department of human oncology.


What makes the head and neck SPORE such a unique resource is that in addition to supporting specific research projects, this program also funds teams of experts that help move promising research directly from the laboratory into the clinic. One of these teams is the Pathology Core, or "Path Core" to SPORE members.


"If you are performing translational research, and you are seeking data to justify a clinical study, you will need to run some of your studies on human tissues and that is where Path Core comes in," said Rong Hu, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pathology and director of the HN SPORE Pathology Core.


Hu and the UW pathology team collect and prepare tissue samples from patients with head and neck cancers, taking extreme care to protect samples from damage and making sure unique samples are used wisely for studies.


Rong Hu, MD, PhDOne of the critical resources the Pathology Core has provided are human tissue microarrays, or TMAs. A TMA is a block of wax that contains a grid of dozens of narrow cylindrical cores of tissue samples. Wafer thin slices of the block can then be sliced off and used for a variety of research studies. These TMAs help maximize the number of studies that can be performed from a single tissue sample.


Another valuable tool the Pathology Core has worked to expand are patient derived xenografts (PDXs), where mice are implanted directly with human tumor tissue samples. These tools allow researchers to observe how human tumors respond to new cancer treatments.


"Before the SPORE began in UW-Madison, we only had one small head neck cancer tissue microarray," Hu said. "Now, we have constructed five additional organ-specific TMAs from over 500 cancer patients and established 44 additional PDXs, some of which are came from very rare head neck cancers."


Beyond providing these new tools for researchers, Hu and the Pathology Core collaborate closely with researchers to determine which, if any, of these tools may help them better carry out their experiments.


"Let's say one of the HN researchers seeks to study new treatments for patients with salivary gland tumors," Hu said. "We help them identify what type of tissue - fresh or from tissue blocks - is available and would be best choice for their research. We coordinate with the Carbone Cancer Center's biobank to obtain these tissues."


In the short time the head and neck SPORE has been active, there are two clinical trials actively recruiting patients and four major research projects moving forward in achieving their aims. The collaborative nature of the SPORE and the expertise of the support cores are key to program's success.


"We couldn't have come this far without the dedication and expertise of contributors like Dr. Hu. Working together, we hope to make a meaningful difference in the lives of HN cancer patients," Harari said.


The five-year, head-and-neck SPORE grant comes up for renewal in summer 2021. The SPORE research teams and core leaders are actively working to highlight successes and challenges of the past four years to prepare a SPORE renewal application to the National Cancer Institute.


"Over the coming years, our work in the HN SPORE Pathology Core will evolve, but our goals will remain the same," Hu said. "We are here to support our cancer researchers and make sure they have state of the art tools and samples to advance head and neck cancer research."


Be Aware of Potential Head and Neck Cancer Signs


The UW annual free head and neck cancer screening event was canceled this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic. However, if you have any health concerns, please contact your healthcare provider. Risk factors for oral and neck cancers include a history of significant alcohol and tobacco use, exposure to the HPV virus, long-term acid reflux, long-term sore throat and hoarseness. Some potential cancer signs are:

  • Lump in the neck
  • Pain in the neck or throat
  • Sore in the mouth or lip
  • Pain in the ear
  • Unusual bleeding, pain or numbness in the mouth or nose
  • Pain or difficulty when swallowing
  • Feeling of something caught in the throat
  • Swelling or trouble opening jaw
  • Hoarseness or change in the voice
  • Numbness in the face
  • Blocked sinuses/sinus pain

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Date Published: 04/07/2020

News tag(s):  cancerAdvances

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