It's been hailed as the biggest breakthrough in 50 years, and could significantly improve the lives of thousands of patients suffering head and neck cancer.

Researchers believe they've found the cause for the disease's aggressive growth and are hopeful they can switch it off. 

It’s not often researchers find a treatment for cancer already available in existing drugs.

But that’s exactly what Dr Charbel Darido and Professor Stephen Jane have done – in a breakthrough discovery that identifies the signals that drive aggressive cancer cell growth.

“No one's understood the mechanism that unpins them, why the cells suddenly develop uncontrolled growth,” said Professor Jane, from Monash University’s research unit at the Alfred Hospital.

“The opportunity to now say we can specifically look at the individual tumour, see what cell growth signals are dis-regulated and then attack those, is a major advance,”

And the answer is in drugs were are currently being used to treat other tumorous cancers.

“No one has any link between these drugs and this cancer,” said research co-author, Dr Darido.

Preliminary trials have been a remarkable success and researchers hope they can soon begin clinical trials on patients suffering from the aggressive cancer.

“The prognosis of head and neck disease hasn’t changed in 50 years, that’s how dismal it really has been, where lots of other cancers have progressed enormously,” said Professor Jane.

“So the way it changes it, is now, to personalise therapy for an individual patient, where we can identify a tumour, look at the signature of growth signals in that tumour, and then say, right, this drug should be active against that particular tumour.”

Head and neck tumour affects more than three thousand Australians a year, and kills almost 1500.

It’s the sixth most common form of the disease, and early prognosis is vital – significantly improving chances of survival.

Ian Hopkins was diagnosed earlier this year, but only after an MRI, CT scan and biopsy.

He initially thought swelling in his mouth was a minor ailment.

“I'd had the mumps a couple of times, I thought maybe I've got the mumps,” said Ian.

“And I'd also just had a crown on the back tooth and I thought it might have just been an infection.”

He’s now two weeks into seven weeks of treatment, which includes chemotherapy and radiotherapy almost daily.

“I had a trip planned to the States and Canada in July and obviously that has had to be cancelled to facilitate the treatment.”

Though clinical trials aren’t likely for another two or three years, Ian is encouraged by the discovery which could significantly reduce the burden of such treatments.

“It’d be a fabulous step forward,” said Ian. 

Source: SBS