Squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (HNSCC) is a relatively common human cancer characterized by high morbidity, high mortality, and few therapeutic options outside of surgery, standard cytotoxic chemotherapy, and radiation. Although the most important risk factors are tobacco use and alcohol consumption, the disease is also linked to infection with high-risk types of human papilloma viruses (HPVs). Recent genetic analyses have yielded new insights into the molecular pathogenesis of this disease. Overall, while somatic activating mutations within classical oncogenes including PIK3CA and RAS occur in HNSCC, they are relatively uncommon. Instead genetic data point to a contribution of multiple tumor suppressor pathways, including p53, Rb/INK4/ARF, and Notch, in tumor initiation, progression, and maintenance. The increasingly refined knowledge of HNSCC genetics, combined with ever-more-sophisticated animal models and newer drug targeting strategies, should promote novel therapeutic approaches and improved disease outcomes.
S. Michael Rothenberg, Leif W. Ellisen