UCL Cancer Institute


Head and Neck Cancers Research Group

Group Leader: Dr Martin Forster

Our research

Head and Neck Squamous Cell Cancer (HNSCC) is the sixth most common cancer worldwide and increasingly caused by infection with human papilloma virus (HPV). The Head and Neck Cancer Research Group at the UCL Cancer Institute aims to increase the understanding of the pathogenesis of head and neck cancer and the translation of these findings into clinical practice. It mainly focuses on HPV-associated head and neck cancer, oral HPV screening, and the genomic and epigenomic analysis of rare head and neck cancers. The group has close links with the UCLH Clinical Trials Centre, HPV Tumour Biology group, UCL Centre for Sexual Health and HIV research, and is part of the UCL HPV Interest Group.

The UCL/UCLH Head and Neck Tissue Bank ‘Genetic Variations in Tumour Growth Promoting Genes’

Project Lead: Martin Forster
The Head and Neck Tissue Bank is a prospective collection of tissue samples from the head and neck region. The collection of these samples is in progress and patients undergoing diagnostic or therapeutic procedures at UCLH are encouraged to take part in this study. Samples are used for the establishment of in vitro and xenograft in vivo models.

Clinical trials in Head and Neck Cancer at UCL/UCLH

Project Lead: Martin Forster
These trials include ORCA2 and PATRIOT.

Circulating biomarkers in Head and Neck Cancer

Project Lead: Martin Forster
This is project aims to evaluate circulating tumour cells and other circulating biomarkers within a range of head and neck malignancies.

Genomic and Epigenomic Analysis of HPV-associated HNSCC

Project Leads: Matt Lechner and Tim Fenton
The aim of this project is to understand the genetic basis of HNSCC and epigenetic alterations induced by HPV, contributing to HNSCC. The effects of HPV infection on the host methylome (human HNSCC), the viral methylome (i.e. HPV) and specific genetic changes associated with both subtypes are investigated and linked to in-house and public gene expression array data and whole-genome somatic mutation databases. The aim is to use these data for a stratified medicine approach to manage these cancers, and to develop targeted therapy studies for this deadly disease. We are also sequencing multiple regions from HPV-associated and HPV-negative HNSCCs in order to understand the genetic heterogeneity present within these tumour types.

Identification of novel therapeutic targets in HPV-associated HNSCC (Collaboration with Dr Chris Lord, Institute of Cancer Research)

Project Lead: Tim Fenton
We are using RNAi and genome engineering based approaches to screen for cellular genes that are selectively required for the growth of cells derived from HPV-associated cancers. We are using cells from both HPV-associated HNSCC and from cervical cancers in the hope that genes we identify may represent useful therapeutic targets in both diseases.

Screening for high-risk oral HPV infection (Collaboration with the UCL Centre for Sexual Health and HIV Research and the National Institute for Medical Research)

Project Lead: Matt Lechner
The aim of this project is to understand the epidemiology of oral high-risk HPV infection and to assess HPV persistence in a group of patients from genitourinary medicine clinics (GUM), in whom we expect to find sexually acquired oral HPV infection, and identify potential biomarker(s) to (A) to distinguish high-risk (lesions likely to progress to oropharyngeal cancer) from low-risk lesions, and (B) screen for high-risk HPV infection in the oral cavity/oropharynx. This will allow the stratification of treatment of high-risk and low-risk lesions and the establishment of management and follow-up guidelines of oral HPV disease, similar to those established for cervical lesions.

Genomic and Epigenomic Analysis of rare Head and Neck Cancers

Project Lead: Matt Lechner
This project focuses on the understanding of genomic and epigenomic profiles of rare head and neck cancers. Around 20 samples are selected from each tumour. Whole-exome sequencing and epigenetic analysis is performed to identify novel molecular markers, putative targets for therapy, and to elucidate genetic alterations specifically associated with these malignancies. These data could result in a stratified medicine approach to manage these cancers, and also to develop targeted therapy studies.

Immunology in Head and Neck Cancer (Collaboration with Prof. Sergio Quezada)

Project Lead: Martin Forster

HER family signalling in Head and Neck Cancer (Collaboration with Prof. Tony Ng.)

Project Lead: Martin Forster

Investigating other causes of Head and Neck Cancer (Collaboration with Georgia Regents University, US)

Project Lead: Matt Lechner
This is a collaborative, innovative project, with the aim to identify currently unknown factors, causing subtypes of head and neck cancers.