Researchers from the University of California's Los Angeles School of Dentistry compared saliva from 64 people who had mouth cancer and 64 others who did not.
The type of oral cancer they tested for is called oral squamous cell carcinoma.
What they found was that there were differences in proteins detected in saliva from people with oral cancer and those without oral cancer. Certain protein biomarkers found in the saliva correlated with the presence of oral cancer.
Using five of the potential biomarkers, the researchers were able to confirm the presence of mouth cancer 90% of the time.
The researchers state that more research is needed to validate the use of these biomarkers as a detection test for oral cancer.
Although a saliva test is not yet available, study author Shen Hu, PhD, assistant professor of oral biology and proteomics at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Dentistry, says in a news release that they are developing ways of detecting the markers for use in clinical trials.
The study authors write that often mouth cancer is not caught until it's in the late stages.
Patients with this type of mouth cancer have a low five-year survival rate and a high rate of recurrence, the authors write, especially when the cancer has metastasized in lymph nodes located in the neck.
Often in the early stages, oral cancer has no symptoms.
According to an article presented with the study, oral cancer affects 300,000 people around the world every year.
The study is published in the Oct. 1 edition of Clinical Cancer Research.