The squamous mucosa of patients who develop head and neck cancer is “condemned” or predisposed to disregulated growth as reflected by the high incidence of synchronous and metachronous primary tumors. We hypothesized that transformed and nontransformed mucosa from head and neck cancer patients would produce increased levels of transforming growth factor α (TGF-α) and its cell surface receptor, the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), thereby contributing to this predisposition. Using molecular biological techniques, we examined the incidence and mechanism of TGF-α and EGFR overproduction in tumors and histologically normal mucosa excised from patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN) to test this hypothetical mechanism of field cancerization. Northern blot hybridization was used to evaluate the frequency of increased TGF-α and EGFR mRNA production in tissue excised from 24 patients with SCCHN and 10 cell lines compared with 7 control patients without cancer or a history of alcohol and tobacco use. Southern blot hybridization was used to examine for gene amplification. In patients with SCCHN, TGF-α mRNA was elevated by a mean of 5-fold in 95% of histologically “normal” mucosa samples (P = 0.001) and by a mean of 5-fold in 87.5% of tumors (P = 0.0001) while EGFR mRNA was elevated by a mean of 29-fold in 91% of histologically normal mucosa specimens (P = 0.0005) and by a mean of 69-fold in 92% of tumors (P = 0.0005), compared with mRNA levels in control normal mucosa. In 10 SCCHN cell lines, TGF-α mRNA was increased by a mean of 16-fold and EGFR mRNA levels were increased by a mean of 77-fold. Increased production of TGF-α and EGFR mRNA in the histologically normal mucosa of patients at risk for a primary or secondary head and neck cancer may serve both as a marker for malignant transformation and as a target for preventive therapies.

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Supported by Grant CH503 from the American Cancer Society (D. J. T.)

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