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Wendell Yarbrough
UNC Lineberger’s Wendell Yarbrough, MD, MMHC, FACS.

The National Institutes of Health’s Dental and Craniofacial Research Institute has awarded UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, Yale Cancer Center and Fox Chase Comprehensive Cancer Center a five-year, $11.7 million Cancer Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant to develop better treatments for head and neck squamous cell carcinoma.

Approximately 65,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma this year, and more than 13,000 will die from the cancer. Recent advances in care have resulted in only modest improvements in overall outcomes, and current treatments can cause functional impairment, disfigurement, pain or increased non-cancer mortality, even for patients who show no sign of disease.

The SPORE grant will enable the three cancer centers to leverage their faculty members’ expertise in oncology, immunobiology, pharmacology, molecular biology, pathology, epidemiology and addiction science to investigate and defeat head and neck squamous cell carcinoma’s ability to resist treatment, including immunotherapy, DNA damaging therapy and targeted therapy.

The grant’s principal investigator is Barbara Burtness, MD, co-leader of the Developmental Therapeutics Research Program at Yale Cancer Center. UNC Lineberger’s Wendell Yarbrough, MD, MMHC, chair of the UNC Department of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery and the Thomas J. Dark Distinguished Professor of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery, is a clinical co-leader of one of the grant’s three primary projects, a study investigating a new treatment for HPV-associated head and neck squamous cell carcinoma.

The clinical trial, based on insights from laboratory studies led by Yarbrough and Natalia Issaeva, PhD, at UNC Lineberger, will investigate whether there is any clinical benefit in treating patients with a demethylating drug or immunotherapy, or a combination of the two, for approximately two weeks before surgery.

“This is a really exciting new strategy for patients with HPV-associated head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, which is rapidly increasing in the U.S.,” Yarbrough said. “New treatments are needed for these patients who are frequently treated with toxic therapy and who frequently have no effective options if they have recurrent disease.”