Escalating non-habit oral cancer incidents baffle researchers

Even as tobacco and alcohol use continue to drive the tide of head and neck cancers in Kerala, the number of young patients – who have never smoked or chewed tobacco in their lives – developing oral cancers is becoming alarmingly high, researchers say. According to them, there is something beyond habits which is driving this new syndrome of non-habit oral cancers in the region.
With the puzzle proving hard to solve, the Regional Cancer Centre of Kerala (RCC) is teaming up with the National Cancer Centre (NCC), Singapore, for a collaborative research project to look into it.

The attempt is to perform molecular studies and genome sequencing of tumors to identify genetic markers which might be causing these non-habit cancers. Dr. Gopal Iyer, consultant head and neck surgeon at NCC is the principal investigator of this joint research project. The research is also expected to open up possibilities for targeted drug development in future.
The investigators are quite keen to get to the bottom of this vexing question because Singapore too has been witnessing a three to five-fold surge in non-habit oral cancers, especially in young women, in the past 10 years.
According to the researchers, oral cancer burden is huge in the south and south-east Asian regions. They are now seeing an equal number of tobacco-associated and non-tobacco cancers. There is a lot of research data on oral cancers coming in from the West but this is not applicable to the problem faced in Asia. “Unlike in the West, the Human Papilloma virus link to oral cancers is non-significant in our region,” says Dr. Iyer.
Initial studies of tumor samples have already been launched at both RCC and NCC. However, molecular profiling and genome sequencing of tumor samples in India is proving to be quite expensive, says experts.
Though the survival rates of head and neck cancers have not improved considerably in the last two decades, within specialized tertiary cancer centers, survival rates have improved tremendously, thanks to the multidisciplinary team approach.