Head and neck cancer (HNC) is one of the most prevalent human malignancies worldwide, with a high morbidity and mortality. Implementation of interdisciplinary treatment modalities has improved the quality of life, but only minor changes in overall survival have been achieved over the past decades. Main causes for treatment failure are an aggressive and invasive tumor growth in combination with a high degree of intrinsic or acquired treatment resistance. A subset of tumor cells gain these properties during malignant progression by reactivating a complex program of epithelia-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT), which is integral in embryonic development, wound healing, and stem cell behavior. EMT is mediated by a core set of key transcription factors, which are under the control of a large range of developmental signals and extracellular cues. Unraveling molecular principles that drive EMT provides new concepts to better understand tumor cell plasticity and response to established as well as new treatment modalities, and has the potential to identify new drug targets for a more effective, less toxic, and individualized therapy of HNC patients. Here, we review the most recent findings on the clinical relevance of a mesenchymal-like phenotype for HNC patients, including more rare cases of mucosal melanoma and adenoid cystic carcinoma.
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