microRNA evaluation of unknown primary lesions in the head and neck
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Unknown primary malignancy in the head and neck is not an infrequent diagnosis for patients with metastatic cervical lymph nodes. Although linked with a relatively good prognosis following radiation treatment, widespread radiation is coupled with significant morbidity. Altered microRNA (miRNA) expression has been associated with both cancer progression and metastasis. We sought to determine whether miRNA expression analysis could be used as a diagnostic tool to discover the primary site of malignancy, within the head and neck. We used quantitative real-time PCR to identify miRNA expression profiles of squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil, base of tongue and post-nasal space, as well as their corresponding metastatic lymph nodes, from 6 patients. Our results revealed that each cancer maintained its expression profile between the primary site and the nodal metastasis (r = 0.82, p < 0.0001). In addition, each anatomical sub-site maintained a distinct miRNA profile between individual patients (r = 0.79, p < 0.0001). Finally, between sub-sites, the miRNA profiles were distinct (p < 0.0001). As proof of principle, our study provides an indication that miRNA expression analysis may be useful to compare the primary lesion and local metastatic disease. This may be clinically relevant to predict the primary site of origin of metastatic disease, when the primary site remains obscure.