'Lab on a chip' could detect oral cancer in minutes

Researchers from the University of Sheffield and Rice University are developing a new "lab on a chip" technique they say can diagnose oral cancer more quickly and effectively.

The device, which is undergoing a clinical trial led by Martin Thornhill, BDS, PhD, professor of oral medicine at the University of Sheffield, could be used by a dentist to determine whether a patient has oral cancer or other abnormalities in fewer than 20 minutes, the researchers said in a press release.

The new test will involve removing cells with a brush, placing them on a chip, and inserting the chip into an analyzer. This will have a number of benefits, including cutting waiting times and the number of patient visits, the researchers noted.

Over the past 18 months, 275 patients have participated in the clinical trial, which is comparing the new technique to conventional biopsies to test its accuracy and reliability.

"The current procedure we have for making a diagnosis -- taking a biopsy -- can take a week or more to produce results and can involve extra visits from patients," Dr. Thornhill said. "With our new technology, a brush can be used to remove a few cells painlessly and a result could be produced in minutes."

If the trial shows that the new approach is as effective as a biopsy, it could become a standard procedure at dental practices in the future, according to the researchers. The technology could also be adapted for other purposes, such as detecting heart attacks or testing a driver for drugs at the roadside.

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