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U-M CCC - Progress Newsletter Winter 2003 Online

U-M Receives $14 Million Grant for Head and Neck Cancer Research

Chuck Cote's voice is his livelihood. As a professional speaker, he works with individuals to help them excel professionally and personally by providing them with ways to conquer their challenges. However, in May 2000, Mr. Cote (show on the right) was faced with one of his greatest personal challenges that not only threatened to end his career, but possibly his life -- an advanced stage of throat cancer known as Squamus Cell Carcinoma.

"When you hear those three words, 'you've got cancer,' it just knocks you over," says Mr. Cote. "And in the advanced stage my throat cancer was in, I was told my only option was surgery that would cut away the right side of my jaw and neck, causing me to lose the ability to speak."

But he wasn't about to accept that fate. That's when he came to the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center and became one of the participants in a new clinical trial involving intensive chemotherapy and radiation in place of surgery.

Now, as a cancer survivor, Mr. Cote wants to provide other head and neck cancer patients with hope and a chance at a better quality of life. To make that happen, he plans to work with researchers at the Cancer Center as the patient advocate for a Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant, which will allow physicians to identify patients, like Mr. Cote, and treat them successfully without surgery.

The five-year, $14 million SPORE grant was recently awarded to the Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute. The NCI offered funding to a select number of head and neck cancer researchers for the first time this year in hopes of stimulating the movement of more laboratory discoveries into the clinical settings for patient use.

With the SPORE grant, the Cancer Center will work to significantly improve the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of head and neck cancer. It also will advance the use of chemotherapy for an innovative preservation treatment approach pioneered by the Cancer Center, says Gregory T. Wolf, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery at the U-M Health System.

"Our overall goal with this grant is to build upon our research and translate it into effective treatments for our patients," says Dr. Wolf, who is the principal investigator for the SPORE grant."We want to give people a better quality of life by finding new ways to preserve the structures in the mouth and throat affected by cancer."

The grant will fund a total of eight projects, built upon preliminary clinical data. Each will be multidisciplinary and collaborative efforts between the U-M departments of Radiation Oncology, Otolaryngology, Pathology, Internal Medicine, the Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System, the U-M School of Dentistry and Henry Ford Hospital.

Through one of the projects, Mr. Cote's success with the radiation/chemotherapy treatment will be closely examined. His tumor, originally the size of an apple, was shrunk by 90 percent in only 14 days using these methods.

"We'll actually be looking at the molecular characteristics of Chuck's tumor in order to identify why he did so well with this treatment,"explains Dr. Wolf. "This will allow us to create specific treatments for patients and avoid unnecessary treatments and surgery, if possible."

More about head and neck cancer
About 40,000 Americans are affected by some form of head and neck cancer, typically in the throat and mouth. Some of the most common causes of head and neck cancer are smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. Dr. Wolf says this form of cancer is more common in men; however, in the past few years, he's seen an increase in women, possibly due to expanded tobacco use among that group.

In most cases, patients ignore their symptoms -- a sore throat, hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, ear pain, weight loss, and white or red patches in the mouth or throat -- which often seem mild.

"I didn't think anything of my symptoms," says Mr. Cote, who believed his sore throat and ear ache were the result of his career and a play in which he was performing. "But in a matter of one week I went from thinking I just had a sore throat to being diagnosed with cancer."

Since symptoms are often ignored, patients tend to not come in for treatment until the cancer is at an advanced stage, which, Dr. Wolf says, gives the patient about a 50 percent cure rate or less. Treatment in the past was limited to surgery, or surgery with radiation. With surgery, patients may lose part of their tongue, mouth or jaw. But now, a combination of intense chemotherapy and radiation at the U-M has helped increase the odds of survival -- and the SPORE grant will work to further advance treatment options.

"I always knew I'd make it through this," says Mr. Cote. "I had an incredible vision all while going through this treatment, that I would go on to live a long and healthy life. Without the Cancer Center clinical trial, I don't think I'd be alive right now."

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