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Understanding Cancer of the Nasopharynx

Cancer of the nasopharynx has its highest incidence in South East Asia, and is more prevalent in the Chinese population. Past studies linked its development to genetic predisposition and herpesvirus infections. UNIMAS researchers in this on-going project have further discovered the involvement of genes not previously implicated.

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) is cancer of the nasopharynx (the uppermost part of the throat that connects the back of the nose to the back of the throat). Published studies suggested genetic predisposition as well as infections by a member of the herpesvirus in the development of NPC. Investigation of both aspects is currently conducted in Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.

Globally, NPC has its highest incidence in South East Asia, and is more prevalent in the Chinese population. Comparison between mainland Chinese and Caucasian showed a 40-fold risk of NPC occurrence in the former.

In Malaysia, the Chinese population represents the highest risk group, constituting 72% of the reported cases. Like most types of cancer, however, the origin of NPC is most probably multifactorial and is specified by several genes. Indeed, other research findings had implicated several genes in NPC tumour progression.

To this date, there are no published studies to correlate the functions, activities and interactions among these genes with regards to the development of NPC. The hypothesis therefore is that there are significant relationships and interactions among these known susceptibility genes (and others?) and their physiological targets in the predisposition and development of NPC.

As the occurrence of NPC is ethnically biased, the genetic background of the susceptible race group probably plays an important role in their predisposition. The question is, what are the genetic markers responsible for these high-risk groups and what are the underlying mechanism(s) of these genetic markers in the predisposition and development of NPC.

On the other hand, Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) association with NPC has been reported extensively. The tight association indicates a role for EBV in the development of NPC but the mechanism remains unknown, though chromosome rearrangements (specific genetic sequence rearrangements) have been widely detected in NPC cases. While EBV infection and chromosomal rearrangements are commonly observed in NPC, there is no published study looking into their relationship in terms of NPC development.

To unravel the mechanism leading to NPC, a research group in UNIMAS has narrowed their target on the activity of some genes and discovered the involvement of genes that had not been implicated before. The group is also looking at the role of EBV-induced apoptosis in chromosome rearrangements in NPC and their current findings have put support to their hypothesis, qualifying further investigation into other regions of chromosome rearrangements.

It is hoped that the combine outcomes of both studies will give more insight and information to the field of NPC research.

Resni Mona | ResearchSEA
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