Fox Chase-Temple Team Receives ACS Grant to Examine Racial Disparities in Head and Neck Cancer Patients


The topline

  • $1.7 million grant from the American Cancer Society will fund Fox Chase and Temple researchers’ collaborative study of racial disparities in head and neck cancer
  • Study will investigate underlying genetic factors that may predispose people of African descent to the disease

A team of Temple researchers led by Fox Chase epidemiologist Camille Ragin, MPH, PhD, has received a grant of more than $1.7 million from the American Cancer Society (ACS) to examine how genetics and the environment interact to influence racial disparities in patients with head and neck cancer. A founding member of the African-Caribbean Cancer Consortium (AC3), since 2006 Ragin has investigated the prevalence and outcomes of cancer for different racial groups in the United States and abroad. At December’s American Association for Cancer Research Cancer Health Disparities Conference, she presented the first research ever conducted on head and neck cancer trends in a Caribbean nation, Trinidad and Tobago.

Genomic Landscape of African Derived SNPs: Distribution of African-derived single nucleotide polymorphisms (AD-SNPs) on genes involved in tobacco metabolism. The genes are shown on chromosome (outer circle). The distribution of AD-SNPs on chromosomes are shown by line graph and heatmap. (Click image to enlarge)

The rate of squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN), specifically in the laryngeal sub-sites, is almost twice as high among people of African descent as among those of European descent, and outcomes for Black SCCHN patients are generally poorer. The new ACS-funded research will look for underlying genetic factors that may predispose certain patients to head and neck cancers. Ragin believes that “while [socioeconomic factors] and access to care are major drivers of the observed racial disparity, biological factors may play a role as well.” For example, tobacco and alcohol use are the major risk factors for SCCHN, and many of the proteins involved in breaking down the chemicals in tobacco smoke and alcohol are encoded differently in the genes across racial groups or sub-groups.

Ragin will work with Jeffrey Chang-Jen Liu, MD, assistant professor of otolaryngology – head and neck surgery at Temple University School of Medicine and attending surgeon in head and neck oncology at Fox Chase, and Rob J. Kulathinal, PhD, principal investigator in Temple University’s department of biology, to examine the genetic profiles of Black patients with head and neck cancers and compare them with genetic information from other groups, including white SCCHN patients and Black volunteers who are cancer-free. They will also conduct tests with healthy volunteers to determine whether, and to what extent, genetic differences affect the metabolism of alcohol- and tobacco-related compounds.

Camille Ragin, PhD

Camille Ragin, MPH, PhD

Ragin hopes the five-year study will help fill knowledge gaps related to head and neck cancer development and survival among Black populations. “We anticipate that the findings will provide insights into the biology of the disease as well as the factors that contribute to racial disparities, and will improve early detection and cancer prevention interventions,” she says. “We also hope that results of these studies will guide the development of personalized therapies that will reduce the vast survival disparity that currently exists.”

The study will enroll patients from Fox Chase and Temple University Hospital as well as county-wide from the Pennsylvania Cancer Registry, with all recruitment and bioassays based at Fox Chase. Ragin and her partners have already recruited 570 control subjects (Black volunteers who are cancer-free) and twelve head and neck cancer patients from Temple’s otolaryngology/head and neck surgery clinics, and have obtained preliminary data and specimens. Recruitment of additional head and neck cancer patients from the Pennsylvania Cancer Registry began in July 2014. Liu will coordinate the project’s clinical aspects while Kulathinal will direct the genomic and bioinformatic assessments. ■