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UCLA School of Dentistry fights oral cancer with new screening test

  • Published Oct 16, 2006 8:00 AM

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, an estimated 30,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year, and more than 8,000 will die. Researcher's at UCLA's School of Dentistry want to change that. They've developed the first standardized RNA test for oral cancer, using a sample of saliva – a true "spit test."

Most oral cancers aren't diagnosed until a patient, or their dentist, actually sees a lesion or discoloration — a visual sign of the cancer. But the School of Dentistry's saliva test detects oral cancer at its earliest stage, before symptoms develop. Analyzing saliva for the presence of four statistically significant oral cancer biomarkers, the saliva RNA test has performed well in pilot studies. Given to 100 oral cancer patients and 100 healthy people, the test correctly identified oral cancer 82 percent of the time. (By comparison, the blood test currently used widely for the diagnosis of prostate cancer is approximately 70 percent accurate.)

The saliva test will be studied in a larger, multicenter clinical trial. If successful, it could soon become a routine part of dental practices.

"Oral cancer is a debilitating disease that, when not deadly, can result in profound facial disfigurement, speech impairment, and an inability to eat normally," says Dr. David Wong, the associate dean of research at the UCLA School of Dentistry and a member of UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center. "Our motivation in investigating the saliva signature for oral cancer was to create a simple yet highly accurate way to detect this disease early enough in its progression to aid in avoiding such outcomes."

This week, attendees at the American Dental Association convention in Las Vegas, Nevada will have the opportunity to take the test themselves. It's one more step in getting the test out of the laboratory and into the dentist's office.

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