Head & Neck Cancer

Our program is one of only a handful nation-wide, with a robust translational and clinical research program. It has a strong track record of funding over the past 12 years. We have nationally-recognized practices in Robotics, Surgical Oncology/Reconstruction and Radiotherapy for Salivary Gland and Merkel Cell Cancer Programs.

The head and neck multidisciplinary cancer care team ranks as one of the top in the nation. The team includes head and neck surgeons, reconstructive surgeons, dental surgeons, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, and neuro-radiologists. Our clinicians offer patients the broadest menu of therapy options locally and regionally and the only team in the region offering the newest technique of transoral robotic-assisted surgery. Our clinical and basic science researchers at UW Medicine and Fred Hutch Cancer Center are identifying new ways to screen, diagnose and treat head and neck cancers. 


This multidisciplinary research program has placed significant emphasis on the field of genomics, which has enormous potential in unlocking the root causes of head and neck cancer and allowing us translate these findings to clinical care. Toward this goal, we have become national leaders in discovering molecular fingerprints that can help physicians determine which cancers are more aggressive than others to help guide oncologists stratify therapies. Over this period of time, we have written numerous publications demonstrating the proof-of-principle that head and neck cancer can be sub classified on the basis of gene aberrations and that these can inform patient survival.

We have now refined this tumor gene signature, the expression of which can predict the most aggressive head and neck cancers with significantly higher accuracy than current clinical parameters alone. We are now translating these findings for clinical use. These clinical applications include the following two highlighted areas:

1) “genomics”: where biomarkers are used to help clinicians predict which tumors are most aggressive on the basis of genetic aberrations

2) “functional genomics”: where genes can be individually “turned off” (or “knocked down” – these terms are interchangeably used) with the use of a naturally occurring molecule termed “siRNA”. Since their discovery, these siRNA’s are now available for each individual gene in the entire human genome. Our NIH-funded functional genomic studies allow us to determine which genetic aberrations drive tumor growth, which could be targeted as new therapies. We are discovering novel targets to treat head and neck cancers, and matching these targets to the tumor subtypes which will respond best to drugs against these targets.

Dr. Slobodan Beronja
STTR Head & Neck Cancer Deputy Director

Dr. Beronja's research focuses on squamous cell carcinoma, which is a type of head and neck cancer originating in the oral and nasal cavities and the throat. Because squamous cells form a vital barrier with the outside world, they are subject to a high level of stress and need to replenish lost and damaged cells. Dr. Beronja studies how cancer hijacks this natural process as well as the mechanisms that normal tissues employ to prevent cancer.

Learn more at the Beronja Lab