Welcome to the Mendez Lab

Our laboratory focuses on markers of disease progression in head and neck cancer. Despite advances in surgery and chemotherapy, survival rates for oral cancer have not improved in the past two decades. Once the disease spreads in the body, survival rates drop. Our research is looking to discover which genes are related specifically to the spread of head and neck cancers to other parts of the body by comparing the genetics of tumors that have not spread with those that have. We hope to one day allow physicians to predict which tumors are more likely to spread, information that will, in turn, affect treatment decisions.  

We also hope to identify novel genetic vulnerabilities common to metastatic cells that can be exploited therapeutically. Although oncogenic mutations are rare in head and neck cancer, mutations in the tumor suppressor gene TP53 are very frequent and are mechanistically linked to both chemo radiation response and metastatic dissemination. Leveraging the power of robotically assisted high-throughput siRNA screens, we systematically survey genes critical for the survival of p53-mutated, metastatic tumor cells. Through this work, we found a p53 synthetic lethal interaction with several G2/M cell cycle regulators including WEE1 and CHK1. Our laboratory is currently seeking to identify the therapeutic potential of WEE1 inhibition in head and neck cancer, particularly in combination with genotoxic agents such as ionizing radiation and cisplatin. 

Besides our focus on markers of disease progression, we are also exploring novel techniques provide real-time intraoperative imaging systems for optical guidance during surgical resection and surveillance of head and neck cancer.  


Surgery is standard treatment for patients with head and neck cancer (HNC), and presence of positive margins is the strongest predictor of local recurrence. If the initial resection can completely remove the tumor, a patient has an increased chance for a cure as well as reduced need for repeat procedures or adjuvant treatment, saving health care costs as well as patient suffering and anxiety. We are currently exploring the integration of real-time intraoperative imaging devices with systemically administered BLZ-100, a Tumor Paint consisting of a chlorotoxin (CTX) peptide conjugated to a NIR fluorophore that is being advanced toward clinical safety and efficacy studies.