AACR 2023: Research finds oncogene over-expressed in head and neck cancer

20 Apr 2023
AACR 2023: Research finds oncogene over-expressed in head and neck cancer

Susan Waltz, PhD, studies the role of a gene that helps accelerate cancer growth called Ron in her laboratory in UC’s Department of Cancer Biology. Zhixin Lu, a doctoral student in Waltz’s lab, wanted to learn more about how Ron affects head and neck cancers while on a rotation in Takiar’s lab.  

Lu’s research bridges a collaboration between the Takiar and Waltz laboratories and between UC departments.  

“We have heavily studied this Ron receptor in breast cancer and prostate cancer, how it drives cancer metastasis and drug resistance,” Lu said. “Ron is heavily expressed in a lot of cancers, including head and neck cancer, but we know much less about its role in head and neck cancer. So that’s really the premise of my project.” 

Lu’s research found that Ron is overexpressed at high levels in multiple cell lines of head and neck cancer, which she said indicates it may play a role in the cancer cells’ function and growth. 

“Ron expression is correlated with worse patient survival outcomes and radiation resistance. The higher Ron is expressed, the less the patient is going to survive in terms of overall survival, which indicates it potentially has a very negative role in those patients,” Lu said. “This makes it a very promising target to study.” 

A protein called EGFR is also overexpressed in a majority of head and neck cancers, but anti-EGFR treatments have not been very effective to this point due to the cancers developing drug resistance.

Interestingly, the researchers found there is an inverse correlation between Ron and EGFR expression in head and neck cancer cell lines and patient data. 

Future studies will aim to learn more about how EGFR and Ron interact and whether blocking Ron will make EGFR-targeted treatments more effective. Lu said the team is also looking to see if there is a similar inverse correlation between Ron and EGFR in breast cancer, which could provide more information on their interaction. 

As researchers learn more, Lu said Ron inhibitors could potentially become a more common treatment option for head and neck cancer patients. Current treatments still rely heavily on chemotherapy and radiation, which come with toxicity and side effects, but a small molecule target like Ron could reduce the dose of chemotherapy needed, she said. 

“It’s more precise because the small molecule really targets proteins and the oncogenic pathway, and combined with that, may not only reduce the side effect but also be more precise to the specific target,” Lu said. 

Source: University of Cincinnati