The hormone estrogen may contribute to the development of head and neck cancer, according to a new study.

The results of the study show estrogen activates a certain enzyme within precancerous cells. Once it's activated, these cells are better able to move and divide, which may ease their transition to full-blown cancer cells.

The enzyme "could be a wonderful target in precancerous lesions of the head and neck, because by attacking it, we might stop these lesions from progressing or moving to a more advanced stage," said study researcher Margie Clapper, of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

However, because the study was performed on cells in lab dishes, further studies are needed to validate these findings in people, the researchers said.

Head and neck cancer , the sixth most common type of cancer, is on the rise in some demographic groups, including young women without any known risk factors.

Estrogen affected the enzyme only in precancerous cells, which are neither totally normal nor cancerous but may turn cancerous.

The study found estrogen induces the expression of the enzyme nicknamed CYP1B1, which is normally responsible for breaking down toxins and metabolizing estrogen. Surprisingly, estrogen did not induce CYP1B1 in cancer cells .

With closer investigation, the researchers found that diminishing levels of CYP1B1 in precancerous cells reduced those cells' ability to move and divide, as compared with similar cells with normal levels of the enzyme. Estrogen also reduced cell death in the precancerous cells.

"In the future, we would like to find a natural or dietary agent to deplete the CYP1B1 enzyme and see if we can prevent oral cancer at the precancerous stage," said study researcher Ekaterina Shatalova, also of Fox Chase Cancer Center.

These results may help reveal possible factors behind head and neck cancer in addition to the traditional risk factors of tobacco and alcohol exposure," said Dr. Jennifer R. Grandis, an editorial board member for Cancer Prevention Research.

The study is published in the January issue of Cancer Prevention Research.

Pass it on: Estrogen may promote movement of precancerous cells in the head and neck, aiding in the spread of the cancer.

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