Saliva test could improve oral cancer detection

A Michigan State University surgeon is teaming up with Delta Dental of Michigan's Research and Data Institute on a clinical trial to create a simple, cost-effective saliva test to detect oral cancer.

Barry Wenig, MD, a professor in the College of Human Medicine's department of surgery and lead investigator on the project, is working with Delta to compile study data and recruit dentists. The study will enroll 100-120 patients with white lesions or growths in their mouths and tonsil areas to test as part of the clinical trial.

Dr. Wenig and his team will be looking for certain biomarkers, previously identified by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), that have been shown in studies to confirm the presence of oral cancer. By creating a simple saliva test that could identify the presence of biomarkers, physicians and dentists would know which patients need treatment and which ones could avoid needless and invasive biopsies.

"Most white lesions are benign, so a majority of people who develop them are getting biopsies that are not needed," Dr. Wenig said in a university press release. "Conversely, a simple test would allow us to identify those patients with malignant lesions and get them into treatment quicker."

In addition to Delta Dental's Research and Data Institute, Dr.Wenig is collaborating with PeriRx, a Pennsylvania company that will sponsor upcoming clinical trials.

Dr. Wenig and members of his team recently met with UCLA colleagues who are working to develop saliva diagnostic tests for other cancers, as well.

"These tests are as noninvasive as it gets; patients simply need to spit into a cup," Dr. Wenig said. "The ease of the test will greatly expand our ability to effectively screen for the cancerous lesions. Right now, there are no early screenings available for most head and neck cancers."

The test also has the potential to accelerate health care savings, he added, since the number of biopsies can be dramatically reduced.

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