Kathryn (Katie) M. Van Abel, M.D., an otolaryngologist at Mayo Clinic, studies a range of diseases, primarily cancer, that affect the head and neck. Dr. Van Abel's main research focus is the study of cancer of the throat, tonsil and base of tongue (oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma), with a specific emphasis on human papillomavirus (HPV)-driven disease.
Dr. Van Abel conducts prospective randomized interventional de-escalation trials and maintains an extensive registry that offers insight into patient and oncologic outcomes by collaborating with teams across Mayo Clinic to investigate DNA methylation profiles. She also studies biomarkers, including circulating tumor DNA and oral microbiome signatures. She investigates the T cell repertoire within primary and nodal tissue using imaging mass cytometry and assesses both patient and partner risk of anogenital HPV disease. Dr. Van Abel also investigates novel aggressive dose de-escalation for patients with lower risk disease and escalation protocols for patients with higher risk disease to individualize treatment strategies, with the goal of maximizing the chance of cure while minimizing the side effects of treatment.
- Individualized therapy for HPV-mediated oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC). Dr. Van Abel collaborates with her colleagues in surgery, medical oncology, radiation oncology, dental specialties and speech therapy to investigate the impact of aggressive dose de-escalation of adjuvant radiation and chemotherapy on oncologic and functional outcomes for patients with HPV-positive oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (HPV(+) OPSCC). She is working closely with this group to identify opportunities to further de-escalate therapy for patients at low risk while escalating or increasing the amount of therapy for patients whose risk is high, all with the goal of providing a cure with as few side effects as possible.
- Biomarker profiles for HPV(+) OPSCC. Dr. Van Abel and her colleagues have launched a prospective biomarker trial collecting blood, saliva, tissue and patient-reported quality-of-life data for patients undergoing treatment for HPV(+) OPSCC. The goal is to identify markers that can help further individualize treatment for each patient, simplify follow-up schedules, and one day provide a surveillance tool for those at risk of disease.
- Single-port (Sp) robotic surgery and novel equipment design. As one of the leading centers in the world for transoral robotic surgery (TORS), Mayo Clinic was one of the first sites to gain experience using the Sp robot for TORS cases. Dr. Van Abel and her colleagues published the first study findings about their experience with this novel technology after FDA clearance. Dr. Van Abel and her team are studying ways to improve the efficiency and safety of these surgical procedures. In addition, with the goal of improving access to areas of the upper aerodigestive tract, Dr. Van Abel has partnered with her colleagues in the Department of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery and collaborators in the Department of Engineering to create novel equipment for TORS procedures.
- Inside-out anatomy. With the development of transoral robotic surgery, the traditional head and neck anatomy that is taught to trainees and understood by practicing surgeons has been turned inside out. This means that the usual relationships are inverted and surgeons must think in three dimensions as never before. Dr. Van Abel has partnered with 3D Anatomic Modeling Labs at Mayo Clinic to create a 3D anatomical atlas for research and education for trainees and surgeons working with this complex anatomy.
- Partners and patients with oropharynx cancer. As more is discovered about the HPV(+) oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma epidemic, it's clear that clinicians need to provide answers to patients who frequently ask about both their and their partner's risk of HPV-related anogenital disease. To do so, Dr. Van Abel is partnering with her colleagues in gynecology to offer a trial to female patients and female partners of patients with HPV(+) OPSCC to assess risk and offer intervention if needed.
Significance to patient care
Working with a multidisciplinary team of colleagues also passionate about treating patients who develop head and neck cancer, Dr. Van Abel aims to answer questions that both advance the science and immediately improve the lives of patients. Dr. Van Abel is dedicated to an individualized approach that provides the right amount of treatment to provide a cure with the least amount of side effects.
- Recipient, National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) U01 grant: Prospective Observational or Biomarker Clinical Validation Study, May 2020