Head and Neck Cancer Research

Our head and neck research program is a collaboration between clinicians, clinician-scientists and PhD researchers who specialize in laboratory, translational, and clinical research. As a result, our doctors integrate head and neck cancer research into the care we provide patients every day. Our head and neck cancer researchers are pursuing a robust array of research activity, including:

  • Investigator-initiated trials
  • Industry and cooperative group trials
  • Research grants in basic/translational research submitted to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Defense and other funding clinical research agencies.

Clinical trials can have immediate benefit to individual cancer patients, whereas basic/translational and clinical research looks to have future impact on the prevention, treatment, and care delivery of head and neck cancer.

Patient-driven research in head and neck cancer

In recent years, hospitals and research institutions have begun recognizing the importance of patient and family input in determining outcomes that matter in research.

For example, doctors generally focus on patient survival by eliminating tumors using surgery, radiation and other treatment. Patients care about survival too, of course. But they also worry about side effects, time off work and their ability to care for their families.

At Henry Ford, we’re taking the idea of patient engagement a step further. We’re asking patients to help drive our head and neck cancer research. Listening to patients offers:

  • Accurate quality-of-life reports: Patients may experience different levels of quality of life than their doctors or nurses might report.
  • Better predictors of survival: Quality of life can predict survival more accurately than American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) cancer staging.
  • Quality improvement: By knowing what matters most to patients, we can improve the quality of care we deliver. Quality improvement can affect reimbursement, and most important, it allows us to meet our mission of caring for people.

  • Henry Ford Patient Advisory Council

    Our Patient Advisory Council gives patients more ways to provide feedback. The Council includes patients, former patients and caregivers of people we’ve treated for head and neck cancers. Patient advisers serve on a volunteer basis. The group meets regularly to help us with:

    • Quality improvement: Patient advisers suggest initiatives that might improve patient care immediately. We also can study these initiatives, using research protocols, to learn if they should be incorporated into all patient care.
    • Creation of patient resources: The Patient Advisory Council plays a vital role in reviewing our patient resources for head and neck cancer. Advisers help ensure that our information is genuinely useful for patients.
    • Being a voice for patients: Advisers bring the patient voice to the table. They sit on internal hospital committees, and advisers can help drive research questions by reviewing research methodology and design for feasibility.
    • Outreach: Our existing patient advisers recruit additional advisers. They’re also ambassadors for the Henry Ford organization. In fact, two advisers now are ambassadors who speak to other organizations about patient-centered outcomes research.
  • The Patient Advisory Council and clinical practice

    The Patient Advisory Council has already made real-time changes in how we care for patients with head and neck cancer despite existing only for several years. Here are some aspects of our clinical practice that have changed, thanks to input from our patient advisers:

    • Improved clinical workflow: With patient advisers’ input, we revamped our clinical flow. Patients now connect immediately with a nurse navigator who guides them through the process. Before treatment, patients meet with a speech and swallow specialist, a dietitian and a behavioral health expert. These experts advise patients on what to expect from their treatment, and they help again after treatment is complete.

    • Evaluating swallowing difficulty: People often experience swallowing difficulty after treatment for throat tumors. However, the medical record often doesn’t capture this problem. Thoroughly following up with patients about their swallowing problems will help us better evaluate which treatments work best, and which patients experience the most difficulty with swallowing. One outcome is a lower rate of feeding tube usage, which reduces the risk of damage to the throat and the ability to swallow after treatment.

    • Support for cancer survivorship: We have added notable support to our clinic as a result of patient engagement. Most significantly, these services include a post-treatment clinic about one month after completing treatment. Patients consistently reported needing support at that time.

    • Dental oncology treatment: Many people have dental problems after treatment for head and neck cancer. Doctors sometimes don’t understand the extent of those problems. After our patient advisers urged us to take a closer look, we’ve involved dentists in our tumor board. These professionals also offer pre- and post-treatment dental care in our clinic.

    • Improved patient resources: Our patient advisers compiled a patient resource folder containing materials that describe head and neck cancer treatments and procedures in patient-friendly terms.

    • Patient support programs: Patient advisers created a patient-to-patient support program. When new patients receive a cancer diagnosis, we can pair them with people who have a similar diagnosis.

    • Higher enrollment in clinical trials: Clinical trials offer opportunities for patients to benefit from new treatments and dedicated medical supervision. Engaging patients more closely at all stages of treatment has helped us enroll more people in clinical trials. Read more about our clinical trials.
  • Patient-centered outcomes research funding
    Our program is a pilot program of Henry Ford’s Patient Engaged Research Center (PERC). A $5 million, five-year grant from the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality (AHRQ) supports PERC.

    The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) funds our patient advisory group research. PCORI is an independent, nonprofit health research organization that helps patients and the public make decisions that reflect their desired health outcomes.

    We use the patient voice to help communicate related symptoms to their cancer providers, using these instruments to better understand how to manage patient symptoms during active treatment and throughout survivorship.

    PCORI requires the projects it funds to include patient engagement in every aspect. PCORI-funded research should affect patient care immediately.
    Learn more about our grant-funded research.
  • Our current patient-centered research
    Quality-of-life outcomes
    With the support of our PCORI grant, we are assessing which quality of life outcomes matter to patients diagnosed with head and neck cancers and their families. We offer real-time monitoring of quality of life in head and neck cancer patients.

    Speech and swallowing outcomes after head and neck cancer treatment
    In traditional treatment, some patients receive a feeding tube before their cancer treatment, and some do not. Some people see a swallowing specialist before their treatment, while others do not. We have several swallowing-related studies that seek to understand how these different approaches affect post-treatment results and functional outcomes for different groups of people.

    We are also one of few sites participating in the PROACTIVE clinical trial, which is focusing on improving patient swallowing outcomes after cancer treatment.

    Head and neck cancer survivorship
    We have made several strides in this area, including a specialized survey to predict who will need a higher level of care after surgery, so we can help to get them back to function as soon as possible. We have also introduced a post-treatment clinic that helps to transition patients to being survivors and provide any other resources necessary. This builds on our existing pre-treatment clinic.

    Neck dissection
    We are examining methods for decreasing nerve injury and nerve weakness after neck dissection. This includes working with our physical therapy colleagues to improve shoulder rehabilitation outcomes.

    Xenographic nerve sheaths
    We are testing whether xenographic nerve sheaths can improve shoulder function after surgery.

Artificial intelligence studies

We have a number of current studies that are exploring the use of artificial intelligence to improve treatment of head and neck cancer. These include:

  • Analyzing imaging data using head and neck radiomics approaches to predict outcomes and personalize radiation treatments accordingly
  • Using machine learning to augment analysis of pathology slides
  • Deep learning techniques to improve early symptom detection in patients undergoing treatment for head and neck cancer

Clinical trials (investigator initiated)

Immunotherapy trial (Henry Ford Health 1801)

This study, developed at Henry Ford, is designed for patients who have had first-line surgery treatment that failed. The new treatment uses immunotherapy to help prevent recurrence, and as part of this we have developed a focus area for treating the most difficult, complex cases.

Photoimmunotherapy trial for precancers

Similar to photodynamic therapy, this links a cancer-specific antibody to a photo sensitizer.


We conducted an investigator-initiated phase III randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to assess the impact of gabapentin in reducing mucositis related pain in patients undergoing radiation therapy for head and neck cancer.

Hypothermia and prevention of taste loss

Our investigators have developed a device (patent-pending) to alleviate or prevent taste loss in patients receiving head and neck radiation.

Clinical trials (COOP group)

Two of our researchers, Steven Chang, M.D., and Farzan Siddiqui, M.D., PhD are active investigators in NRG Oncology, an organization that focuses on conducting multi-institutional phase II and phase III clinical trials – as well as phase I and translational biological studies imperative for oncologic research of the future.

Cancer Research Network

We are currently directing a collaborative scientific working group in the Cancer Research Network to study head and neck cancers. This collaborative consists of 10 institutions and a large group of patients with head and neck cancer with complete medical records available.

The patients are ethnically, racially and geographically diverse. Together, this collaborative aims to advance the understanding of head and neck cancer treatment in patients across a wide spectrum.

Translational research

Characterizing promoter methylation in keloid pathogenesis across the whole genome

Signaling events in the cell play a critical role in how the body performs key biological functions, including the formation of keloid scars. We’re studying keloid-specific genes using the Pathway analysis framework.

With this work, we aim to identify distinct signaling pathway networks and master regulators. Our goal is to gain knowledge of the molecular workings of genes as differential targets or the treatment of keloids.

We’re hopeful that this strategic, comprehensive approach will help make progress toward identifying and validating prognostic, diagnostic and therapeutic biomarkers in keloids

Identifying immune markers of response to immunotherapy in head and neck cancer

Recent clinical advances with drugs that block immune checkpoints, such as nivolumab (Opdivo®), have brought immunotherapy out of the realm of highly specialized therapy and into the mainstream of oncology.

However, the building momentum for these new drugs and treatment combinations in oncology comes with increasing costs to the consumer. The challenge has been to find out why some patients respond whereas others do not. Our goal is to establish genetic markers as:

  • Novel immune biomarkers: These markers will tell us about the presence of tumor-immune infiltrating cells (TILs). They also may be useful in predicting the prognosis in head and neck cancer.
  • A predictor of high mutational load (using next generation sequencing): If these markers do predict mutation, they may be useful as a biomarker of response to immune checkpoint therapy in HNSCC.

Innovative treatments for head and neck lesions

  • Radiofrequency ablation of benign thyroid nodules: This thermal ablation technique shrinks thyroid nodules without surgery.
  • Image-guided and adaptive-radiation therapy: Our radiation oncologists utilize image guidance to deliver radiation therapy and constantly monitor changes in patient anatomy and tumor response. This adapts for these changes during the course of radiation therapy to increase dosage while minimizing side effects.
  • Stereotactic radiation: Extremely precise high-dose radiation therapy is delivered to selected patients with recurrent or second primary head and neck cancers when all other treatment options may not be possible. This treatment is offered at very few high-volume specialty centers.
  • Hyperthermia with concurrent radiation: Designed for patients with recurrent, persistent inoperable cancers who have who have had previous surgery and radiation treatment, this new approach fuses both heat and radiation therapy into one treatment.
  • New TORS applications: While transoral robotic surgery has been an effective alternative to open surgery, we are now looking at it for recurrent cancers and as a tool in reconstructive procedures.
  • Reconstruction surgery: This ongoing study is for patients who undergo free tissue transfer reconstruction after salvage cancer surgery to reduce length of stay and enhance wound healing.
  • NavDx®: This liquid biopsy test analyzes tumor-tissue-modified DNA in the blood to detect Human papillomavirus (HPV)-related cancer. In clinical studies, NavDx® has established its ability to monitor head & neck cancer recurrence.
Brain Scan Machine
Join Our Research Team
Find out more about how to join the Henry Ford Cancer Research team.

Our researchers

Medical doctors who work with patients every day lead our head and neck cancer research team. Our medical researchers collaborate with scientific investigators to apply what we learn to our patient care, right away.

Head and neck cancer research scientific members


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