Ethnic Background Could Affect Outcomes in Head-and-Neck Cancers, Study Found in 60%

Black patients with head-and-neck cancers have twice the death rates of white patients, and a new study suggests race itself underlies those differences.

“What is unique about our study is it strongly supports the conclusion that Black patients seem to respond to therapy differently than white patients,” said  Dr. Jeffrey Liu. He is an associate professor in the division of head and neck surgery at Fox Chase Cancer Center and the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Past research has found that factors such as economic status and access to health care also contribute to these issues.

The researchers used data from a nonprofit Radiation Therapy Oncology Group clinical trial for this study. Patients in such a trial are designed similarly for factors such as age, health status, and cancer stage. Once enrolled, they also receive the same cancer care, which is not valid in the general population, where access and quality of care can vary.

For this study, 468 Black head-and-neck cancer patients were compared with white patients who received the same treatment.

While researchers expected similar outcomes for both groups, the study found that white patients had better survival in 60% of the matched pairs than Black patients.

“Using self-reported race, we see a difference in how these groups respond to the same treatment,” Liu said in a cancer center news release.

He noted that race is a social construct rather than biological so it can be imperfect for grouping patients, but it will continue to be used until precision medicine advances to the point where it will be possible to use a patient’s genetic profile in research.

“The bottom line is that people are different,” Liu said. “When you put together groups of patients, however imperfect the grouping, some people may be less responsive to therapy than others. Our next steps are to understand why this is the case.”

The study findings were published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

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