Head and Neck Cancer Research

The Henry Ford Cancer Institute created our head and neck cancer research program in 2015. The head and neck program encourages collaboration between PhD researchers who specialize in laboratory and data research and medical doctors in clinical practice. As a result, our doctors integrate head and neck cancer research into the care we provide patients every day.

Our head and neck cancer researchers are pursuing a robust array of clinical trial activity, including one investigator-initiated trial, three industry trials and six cooperative group trials as well as research grants in basic/translational research submitted to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and U.S. Department of Defense. Clinical trials can have immediate benefit to individual cancer patients, whereas basic/translational research looks to have future impact on the prevention and treatment of head and neck cancer.

Our head and neck cancer research

Head and neck cancer is a challenging group of diseases, with high mortality and high recurrence rates. Thanks to our location in Detroit, Michigan, we care for patients from many ethnic backgrounds. This diversity informs our research in head and neck cancer, which includes:

  • Directing a collaborative scientific working group in the Cancer Research Network to study head and neck cancers: This collaborative consists of 10 institutions and a large group of patients with head and neck cancer with complete medical records available. The patients are ethnically, racially and geographically diverse. Together, this collaborative aims to advance the understanding of head and neck cancer treatment in patients across a wide spectrum.
  • Assessing quality-of-life outcomes: With the support of a Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute grant, we are assessing which quality of life outcomes matter to patients diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the oropharynx (throat cancer) and their families. Learn more about patient-driven research in head and neck cancer.
  • Studying speech and swallowing outcomes after head and neck cancer treatment: In traditional treatment, some patients receive a feeding tube before their cancer treatment, and some do not. Some people see a swallowing specialist before their treatment, while others do not. We are studying the evidence of these approaches to understand how they affect post-treatment results for different groups of people.
  • Assessing genome-wide DNA methylation in head and neck tumors: Epigenetic silencing of driver genes leads to various genomic alterations that can lead to cancer. In human papilloma virus (HPV) positive head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC), recent studies are beginning to establish a role for DNA methylation with the potential to therapeutically improve survival outcomes.
  • Evaluating whole-genome mutations and methylome defects to identify biomarkers of early detection in thyroid cancer: To respond to the present challenge of obtaining a highly accurate diagnostic test for early thyroid cancers, the thyroid research program conducts studies of molecular pathways and signaling networks. The goal is to identify biomarkers that will help differentiate the various forms of more malignant and benign thyroid cancer to optimize treatment options for patients.
  • Characterizing promoter methylation in keloid pathogenesis across the whole genome: Signaling events in the cell play a critical role in how the body performs key biological functions, including the formation of keloid scars. We’re studying keloid-specific genes using the Pathway analysis framework. With this work, we aim to identify distinct signaling pathway networks and master regulators. Our goal is to gain knowledge of the molecular workings of genes as differential targets or the treatment of keloids. We’re hopeful that this strategic, comprehensive approach will help make progress toward identifying and validating prognostic, diagnostic and therapeutic biomarkers in keloids.
  • Identifying immune markers of response to immunotherapy in head and neck cancer: Recent clinical advances with drugs that block immune checkpoints, such as nivolumab (Opdivo®), have brought immunotherapy out of the realm of highly specialized therapy and into the mainstream of oncology. However, the building momentum for these new drugs and treatment combinations in oncology comes with increasing costs to the consumer. The challenge has been to find out why some patients respond whereas others do not. Our goal is to establish genetic markers as:
    • Novel immune biomarkers: These markers will tell us about the presence of tumor-immune infiltrating cells (TILs). They also may be useful in predicting the prognosis in head and neck cancer.
    • A predictor of high mutational load (using next generation sequencing): If these markers do predict mutation, they may be useful as a biomarker of response to immune checkpoint therapy in HNSCC.

Spotlight: patient-driven research in head and neck cancer

In recent years, hospitals and research institutions have begun focusing treatment on the results patients want, rather than having doctors dictate certain treatment processes.

For example, doctors generally focus on patient survival by eliminating tumors using surgery, radiation and other treatment. Patients care about survival too, of course. But they also worry about side effects, time off work and their ability to care for their families.

At Henry Ford, we’re taking the idea of patient engagement a step further. We’re asking patients to help drive our head and neck cancer research. Listening to patients offers:

  • Accurate quality-of-life reports: Patients may experience different levels of quality of life than their doctors or nurses might report.
  • Better predictors of survival: Quality of life can predict survival more accurately than American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) cancer staging.
  • Quality improvement: By knowing what matters most to patients, we can improve the quality of care we deliver. Quality improvement can affect reimbursement, and most important, it allows us to meet our mission of caring for people.

Henry Ford Patient Advisory Council

At Henry Ford, our Patient Advisory Council gives patients more ways to provide feedback. The Council includes patients, former patients and caregivers of people we’ve treated for head and neck cancers.

Patient advisers serve on a volunteer basis. The group meets regularly to help us with:

  • Quality improvement: Patient advisers suggest initiatives that might improve patient care immediately. We also can study these initiatives, using research protocols, to learn if they should be incorporated into all patient care.
  • Creation of patient resources: The Patient Advisory Council plays a vital role in reviewing our patient resources for head and neck cancer. Advisers help ensure that our information is genuinely useful for patients.
  • Being a voice for patients: Advisers bring the patient voice to the table. They sit on internal hospital committees, and advisers can help drive research questions by reviewing research methodology and design for feasibility.
  • Outreach: Our existing patient advisers recruit additional advisers. They’re also ambassadors for the Henry Ford organization. In fact, two advisers now are ambassadors who speak to other organizations about patient-centered outcomes research.

The Patient Advisory Council and clinical practice

The Patient Advisory Council has existed for only a couple of years, but it already has improved the way we care for people who have head and neck cancer. Here are some aspects of our clinical practice that have changed, thanks to input from our patient advisers.

  • Improved clinical workflow: With patient advisers’ input, we revamped our clinical flow. Patients now connect immediately with a nurse navigator who guides them through the process. Before treatment, patients meet with a speech and swallow specialist, a dietitian and a behavioral health expert. These experts advise patients on what to expect from their treatment, and they help again after treatment is complete.
  • Evaluating swallowing difficulty: People often experience swallowing difficulty after treatment for throat tumors. However, the medical record often doesn’t capture this problem. Thoroughly following up with patients about their swallowing problems will help us better evaluate which treatments work best, and which patients experience the most difficulty with swallowing. One outcome is a lower rate of feeding tube usage, which reduces the risk of damage to the throat and the ability to swallow after treatment.
  • Support for cancer survivorship: We have added notable support to our clinic as a result of patient engagement. Most significantly, these services include a post-treatment clinic about one month after completing treatment. Patients consistently reported needing support at that time.
  • Dental oncology treatment: Many people have dental problems after treatment for head and neck cancer. Doctors sometimes don’t understand the extent of those problems. After our patient advisers urged us to take a closer look, we’ve involved dentists in our tumor board. These professionals also offer pre- and post-treatment dental care in our clinic.
  • Improved patient resources: Our patient advisers compiled a patient resource folder containing materials that describe head and neck cancer treatments and procedures in patient-friendly terms.
  • Patient support programs: Patient advisers created a patient-to-patient support program. When new patients receive a cancer diagnosis, we can pair them with people who have a similar diagnosis.
  • Higher enrollment in clinical trials: Clinical trials offer opportunities for patients to benefit from new treatments and dedicated medical supervision. Engaging patients more closely at all stages of treatment has helped us enroll more people in clinical trials. Read more about our clinical trials.

Patient-centered outcomes research funding

Our head and neck cancer program is a pilot program of Henry Ford’s Patient Engaged Research Center (PERC). A $5 million, five-year grant from the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality (AHRQ) supports PERC.

The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) funds our patient advisory group research. PCORI is an independent, nonprofit health research organization that helps patients and the public make decisions that reflect their desired health outcomes.

PCORI requires the projects it funds to include patient engagement in every aspect. PCORI-funded research should affect patient care immediately.

Learn more about our grant-funded research.

Get involved with head and neck cancer research

Our head and neck cancer research program works closely with people who have cancers of the head and neck, and their families.

  • Find a clinical trial: Henry Ford offers numerous clinical trials that offer innovative treatments or therapies to patients. Learn more about clinical trials.
  • Become a Henry Ford researcher: Find out about joining or collaborating with our head and neck cancer researchers. Join our research team.
  • Support cancer research: Henry Ford’s Cancer Research Advisory Group (CRAG) provides funding and resources to assist our researchers in their work. Learn how to support cancer research.

Our researchers

Medical doctors who work with patients every day lead our head and neck cancer research team. Our medical researchers collaborate with scientific investigators to apply what we learn to our patient care, right away.

Below, you can learn more about our current researchers. You also can read more about how to join our research team.

Head and neck cancer research scientific members

Head and neck cancer research clinical members

Publications in head and neck cancer research

We share our work regularly with the medical research community through publication in scientific journals. Search the publications below for topics that interest you.

Biomarkers (years 2015/2016)

Jones LR, Greene J, Chen KM, Divine G, Chitale D, Shah V, Datta I, Worsham MJ. Biological significance of genome-wide DNA methylation profiles in keloids. Laryngoscope. 2016: doi: 10.1002/lary.26063.

Garcia-Rodriguez L, Jones L, Chen KM, Datta I, Divine G, Worsham MJ. Causal network analysis of head and neck keloid tissue identifies potential master regulators. Laryngoscope. 2016;126(10):E319-24.

Worsham MJ, Chen KM, Datta I, Stephen JK, Chitale D, Gothard A, Divine G. Biological significance of methylome differences in human papilloma virus associated head and neck cancer. Oncology Letters, 2016: 12: 4949-4956.

Gamage DH, Li J, Worsham MJ, Meser MM. Targeted theranostic approach for glioma using dendrimer-based curcumin nanoparticle. Journal of Nanomedicine & Nanotechnology, 2016, 7:4 DOI: 10.4172/2157-7439.1000393.

Baldwin B, Chitale D, Chen KM, Worsham MJ, Yaremchuk K. Investigation into the presence of human papillomavirus in patients with obstructive sleep apnea. Laryngoscope. 2016 Jul 14. doi: 10.1002/lary.26175.

Chen KM, Stephen JK, Harvard S, Mahan M, Divine D, Worsham MJ: IGSF4 methylation is an independent marker of HPV positive OPSCC. JAMA: Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2015 Mar;141(3):257-63.

Worsham MJ, Chitale D, Chen KM, Datta I, Divine G. Cell signaling events differentiate ER negative subtypes from ER positive breast cancer. Medical Oncology. 2015 May;32(5):142, 32:142 DOI 10.1007/s12032-015-0565-3.

Stephen JK, Worsham MJ. Human papilloma virus (HPV) modulation of the HNSCC epigenome. Methods Mol Biol. 2015; 1238:369-379.

Lamont RJ, Young W, Divine G, Datta I, Chen KM, Ozog D, Worsham MJ. Genome-wide scan for methylation profiles in keloids. Disease Markers. 2015; Article ID 943176, 7 pages.

Stephen JK, Chen KM, Divine G, Worsham MJ. Methylation markers for early detection and differentiation of follicular thyroid cancer subtypes. Cancer and Clinical Oncology. 2015; Vol. 4, No. 2; 2015ISSN 1927-4858 E-ISSN 1927-4866.

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Learn more about cancer research at Henry Ford.