Estrogen may promote the spread of head and neck cancer by increasing the movement of precancerous cells in the mouth, suggest new study findings.

Previous research has indicated that following smoke exposure in the lungs, estrogen metabolism changes and may contribute to lung cancer (Cancer Prev Res. 2010;3:707-717). The current project (Cancer Prev Res. 2011;4:107-115) evaluated the contribution of estrogen to the development of squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck—the sixth most common type of cancer in the United States.

The investigators learned that in precancerous cells (but not in cancerous cells), estrogen induces the expression of cytochrome P450 1B1 (CYP1B1), the enzyme responsible for breaking down toxins and metabolizing the hormone. Further examination revealed that depleting the expression of CYP1B1 in precancerous cells diminished their ability to move and divide.

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Estrogen also reduced cell death in precancerous cells, regardless of the amount of CYP1B1 present.

“These data provide novel insight into the mechanisms underlying head and neck carcinogenesis and facilitate the identification of new targets for chemopreventive intervention,” wrote the researchers.