Head and Neck Cancer: Latest Research

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2022

ON THIS PAGE: You will read about the scientific research being done to learn more about head and neck cancer and how to treat it. Use the menu to see other pages.

Doctors are working to learn more about head and neck cancer, ways to prevent it, how to best treat it, and how to provide the best care to people diagnosed with this disease. The following areas of research may include new options for patients through clinical trials. Always talk with your doctor about the best diagnostic and treatment options for you.

  • New medications. Many studies are underway to learn more about new types of drugs that may help treat head and neck cancer.

  • Immunotherapy. An active area of immunotherapy research is focused on drugs that block a protein called PD-1. PD-1 is found on the surface of T cells, which are a type of white blood cell that helps the body’s immune system fight disease. Because PD-1 keeps the immune system from destroying cancer cells, stopping PD-1 from working allows the immune system to better eliminate the disease. There are 2 immunotherapy drugs approved for the treatment of metastatic or recurrent head and neck cancers (see Types of Treatment). Researchers are studying PD-1 immunotherapy for people with recurrent and metastatic head and neck cancer in clinical trials.

  • Combined therapies. Most research for head and neck cancer focuses on combining different types of treatments to improve treatment effectiveness and the patient’s quality of life.

  • Radiofrequency thermal ablation (RFA). RFA is a minimally invasive treatment option that applies heat to the tumor to destroy cancer cells. It is usually used to treat a localized tumor that cannot be removed by surgery.

  • Gene therapy. Gene therapy is a targeted form of treatment that uses biologic gene manipulation to change bits of genetic code in a person’s cells. Although gene therapy is relatively new, it appears to show promise in treating head and neck cancer.

  • Photodynamic therapy. In photodynamic therapy, a light-sensitive substance is injected into the tumor that stays longer in cancer cells than in healthy cells. A laser is then directed at the tumor to destroy the cancer cells. The long-term effects of photodynamic therapy are still being studied.

  • Proton therapy. Proton therapy can be added to a treatment plan to reduce the damage done to healthy tissue. This radiation therapy technique may help protect important structures in the head, such as the brain stem and the optic nerves that run to the eyes, when used to treat nasopharyngeal cancer, chordoma, or chondrosarcoma. A chordoma is a rare tumor that usually occurs in the spine or the base of the skull. Chondrosarcoma is a tumor that develops in cartilage. They are both types of bone cancer.

  • HPV. Researchers continue to investigate the link between HPV and head and neck cancers. These studies are evaluating why HPV raises the risk of the disease and how the virus may affect the outcome of some treatments. Studies are also looking at whether the HPV vaccine that is currently used to prevent cervical, vaginal, vulvar, and anal cancer is effective at preventing some head and neck cancers as well.

  • Palliative care/supportive care. Clinical trials are underway to find better ways of reducing symptoms and side effects of current head and neck cancer treatments to improve comfort and quality of life for patients.

Looking for More About the Latest Research?

If you would like more information about the latest areas of research in head and neck cancer, explore these related items that take you outside of this guide:

The next section in this guide is Coping with Treatment. It offers some guidance in how to cope with the physical, emotional, social, and financial changes that cancer and its treatment can bring. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.