Study co-led by UNC Cancer Center researcher uncovers links to HPV

Tuesday, March 3, 2015
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A study co-led by an UNC Cancer Center researcher has uncovered some new findings that could revolutionize the way cancer is treated.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- A study co-led by an UNC Cancer Center researcher has uncovered some new findings that could revolutionize the way cancer is treated.

D. Neil Hayes, M.D, MPH was one of three co-leaders on a study involving genetic changes in head and neck cancer.

"This is one of the steps or stages of the Cancer Genome Atlas, which is a multi-year, multi-million dollar cancer characterization project funded by the National Cancer Institute and the Human Genome Research Institute," Dr. Hayes said.

As part of the work he and fellow researchers across the country have done, they were able to link some of these changes to smoking, drinking, and the sexually transmitted disease, HPV.

"We've had some idea there was an association between HPV and some tonsil cancers for maybe 10 years, just as there's an association in cervical cancer, but we've not had the connection between the changes in the DNA associated with that infection and the outcomes and treatments that our patients might require," Dr. Hayes said. "This study is really the first look at those connections."

By mapping it all out, Dr. Hayes said, it is the first study to really take a comprehensive look at the cancer genome for head and neck cancer.

"We have to be able to connect the dots to find out how some tumors are related or are in close proximity, how other tumors are different, and then think about what that means for our patients in terms of treatments."

These findings have since been published and will help lead to potential new therapies and the identifications of markers that could help determine which types of therapies patients will most likely respond to.

"Every treatment that we currently give and every treatment that we're developing needs to be thought of in light of the findings of this study," says Dr. Hayes. "The study points to some drugs that we really need to be looking at now, drugs that are already even available that we need to consider in head and neck cancer."

Unfortunately, the possible implications the study will have on treatment options comes too late for Bobby Garrett and the wife and children he left behind.

"He passed December of 2008, and he labored with this cancer for 11 years," said his wife, Alice Garrett.

His battle included radiation, chemo, and two surgeries.

"He was a family man, he loved people, he loved God, he loved church, he loved good singing, and was always, always trying to do something to help someone," Alice Garrett said.

And now, even in death, he's helping through a foundation formed in his name that raises money through an annual gospel concert the first weekend in December at the St. Matthew AME Church in Raleigh.

Every cent raised goes to the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

It's the same center that took care of him when he was sick, and it's the same center that's working to continue revolutionizing how cancer is treated.

For more on the Cancer Genome Atlas and the recently published study, visit

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