In the future, detecting oral cancer may be as simple as spitting into a test tube.
And with 40,000 new cases of oral and throat cancer each year, simplifying detection may save thousands of lives. Today, nearly 50% of people diagnosed with oral or throat cancer will die within 5 years.
This is because lesions and sores in the mouth and throat are often unnoticed until it's too late.
These early cancers often have no symptoms. If detected early enough, however, oral cancer survival rates are as high as 75-90%.
Research across disciplines
With funding from the NIH, and help with the Office of Clinical Research, (now the Clinical and Translational Science Institute), two University researchers came together 3 years ago to investigate a new method for early detection of oral cancer: identifying biomarkers in saliva.
Rhodus (School of Dentistry) and Griffin (Medical School/College of Biological Sciences) analyze protein from cells in saliva to see if it contains clues about whether a person is susceptible to developing or has already developed oral cancer.
Using a technology called mass spectrometry, the researchers measure thousands of proteins in cells. Certain proteins indicate cancer, and this technology helps identify the specific proteins that show the cancer process is occurring.
It’s a lot of work. But Rhodus and Griffin aren’t without help. Also on the research team are ear, nose, and throat doctors, computer scientists, and student researchers.
Ear, nose and throat specialists work in the clinic and collect specimens directly from patients. Next, computer scientists develop a model and system to manage and analyze data from the samples.
As for the students?
“We advocate them doing research across the board,” says Rhodus. From working with the patients to processing data, Rhodus emphasizes mentoring students so they, too, can understand the research and continue bringing their work forward.
This project requires people who have basic science knowledge, as well as clinicians who know how the disease presents in people. And translational scientists—those who bridge basic science to clinical research—are especially important.
“In this kind of research, we’re investigating a serious clinical problem. And since we don’t have answers about what happens in early cancer development, it’s critical to know what’s going on biologically, on the molecular level.” Rhodus says.
To date, biopsy is the gold standard for determining if a lesion is benign or malignant. Not only is this method expensive, but also very invasive. For a person with multiple lesions, this method of testing can leave major gaps or holes in the mouth. Though reconstructive surgery is an option, it doesn’t come without a price. Most insurance plans do not cover this type of surgery.
With its low cost and ease, the spit test may potentially be administered more frequently. The method also has the potential to screen for other types of cancer, like breast and prostate cancer.
“The ability to detect and treat will lead to a mortality rate reduction,” says Griffin. “To some degree, we’re trying to give physicians better tools to diagnose their patients and help treat them.”