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Compound from Chinese medicine shows promise in head and neck cancer

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- A compound derived from cottonseed could help improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy at treating head and neck cancer, researchers at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center have found.

The findings, which appear in the July issue of the journal Molecular Cancer Therapeutics, could lead to a treatment that provides an effective option to surgically removing the cancer, helping patients preserve vital organs involved in speech and swallowing.

While new treatments in head and neck cancer have allowed some patients to undergo chemotherapy and radiation therapy instead of surgery, this form of cancer is often resistant to chemotherapy. When the cancer does not respond to these powerful drugs, patients must resort to surgery.

"Patients really benefit long-term by avoiding surgery because the side effects of surgery for head and neck cancer can be particularly difficult for patients. It affects how you talk, how you swallow and how you breathe," says study author Carol Bradford, M.D., professor of otolaryngology at the U-M Medical School and co-director of the Head and Neck Oncology Program at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The compound, (-)-gossypol, works to regulate a protein called Bcl-xL that's overexpressed in cancer cells and makes these cells survive when they shouldn't. Shaomeng Wang, Ph.D., co-director of the Molecular Therapeutics Program at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center, discovered (-)-gossypol, a compound derived from a component of Chinese medicine.

Gossypol comes from cottonseed and was once used in China as a male contraceptive. More recently, it's been tested as a cancer treatment. Wang found the negative isomer of gossypol binds at a site to block the active Bcl-xL protein. A prior study conducted by researchers in the U-M Head and Neck Oncology Program showed Bcl-xL protein is often highly expressed in head and neck cancers.

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