Second primary tumors in patients with head and neck cancer have a detrimental impact on long-term survival; at least 15% of patients develop additional tumors. Originally, it was hypothesized that multiple tumors developed independently after widespread epithelial exposure to carcinogens (the field cancerization theory), but recent molecular studies now support the alternative theory of a common clonal origin. If multiple tumors originate from the same clone, early genetic alterations in these cells should be common to all of the tumors. We have compared the pattern of allelic imbalance in paired tumors from five male patients with two synchronous oral squamous cell carcinomas and in peripheral dysplasia using microsatellite markers on chromosomes 3p, 9p, and 17p. Discordance, usually through loss of alternate alleles at the same microsatellite loci, was detected in two patients. The remaining three patients had identical alterations in their tumors. The changes identified occurred early in tumorigenesis, because, with only one exception, these were also present in the associated dysplasia. Thus, we provide evidence that synchronous oral squamous cell carcinomas are of independent origin in some patients but may be of common clonal origin in others.

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Supported by a grant from the North West Cancer Research Fund, United Kingdom.

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