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Cancer Health Center

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Spit Test Spots Head and Neck Cancer

Researchers Also Working on Oral Swab Test for Lung Cancer

Gene Test Predicts Head and Neck Cancer continued...

She came up with the idea of looking for two genes -- PMAIP1 and PTPN1 -- that are associated with head and neck cancer. Abnormalities in either gene signal the cancer.

The researchers took saliva samples from 27 patients with head and neck cancer and 10 healthy people without cancer. "Patients just spit in a cup," Sethi says.

The researchers extracted DNA from the samples and analyzed it.

"Lo and behold, we could completely separate out the cancer patients from the normal non-cancer healthy people," she says.

Sethi says the next step will be to validate the test in people who come in for head and neck screening because "they are a smoker, have a family history, or other reasons. By the end of the year, we hope to have an early test for head and neck cancer," she says.

Mouth May Give Clues to Lung Damage

In the second study, researchers found that molecular damage to the cells lining the mouth can reflect similar damage in the lung tissue. This damage can eventually lead to cancer.

The current method of getting lung tissue for examination requires a bronchoscopy, during which a doctor inserts a flexible tube through the patient's nose or mouth and down to the lungs. It can be downright unpleasant, says Li Mao, MD, a specialist in head, neck and lung cancer at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

So the researchers came up with the idea of using oral tissue as a surrogate marker, he says.

The test is cheap and simple, adds Manisha Bhutani, MD, who also worked on the study.

"Using a swab-sized stick with bristles on the end, we can get the same information from a brushing inside of the cheek that we would from lung brushings obtained through bronchoscopy," she says.

Test May Miss Damage

The team examined one sample of oral tissue and six samples of lung tissue from 125 longtime smokers.

They looked for two genes that protect against the development of cancer -- p16 and FHIT.

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