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Genetic Test Helps Identify Those at High Risk for Mouth and Throat Cancer

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Marshall Posner, MD, director of the head and neck oncology center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, says that it is not possible or necessary to closely monitor or treat everyone with white patches in their mouths. However, if a test like this can weed out, with reasonable accuracy, who is most likely to develop cancer, efforts can concentrate on monitoring those individuals, and those not at high risk can breathe easier. Posner was not involved in the research.

Sudbø and his colleagues identified 150 people who had the type of white patches in their mouth and throat that sometimes lead to cancer. The investigators conduced genetic studies on samples of these white patches and followed the individuals for over eight years. They found that the test, while not perfect, did a good job of predicting which participants would eventually develop cancer of the mouth and throat and which wouldn't.

This type of test is already being used to test for risk of other types of cancers, so the technology is available in some medical centers.

Currently, there's not a lot that can be done for people at high risk for oral cancer aside from surgically removing the white patches completely, which is no guarantee that cancer won't develop elsewhere in the mouth. Several studies are currently underway, though, for drugs called chemoprevention therapy that are designed to stop cancer before it starts. Lippman and Posner agree that those identified at high risk for oral cancer by tests such as this one should seriously consider enrolling in the clinical trials that study these drugs.

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