UCSF Scientists Aim to Use Saliva to Detect Oral Cancers

By Rachel Tompa, UCSF Science Cafe | August 22, 2007

Could scrutiny of spit save your life? Cancer researchers may soon know the answer.

More than 30,000 new cases of oral cancer are diagnosed each year in the US alone, many when it's too late to prevent death. Dentists and hygienists find oral cancers during exams, but researchers at UCSF now are developing ways to detect cancers earlier -- before tumors become visible to the naked eye. To do so they are examining telltale proteins in saliva.

Saliva, besides helping your digestion, reflects the state of your body. It contains the same proteins found in your blood, but at much lower levels. Cancers produce proteins abnormally. Cancer researchers have wondered if these abnormalities are reflected in a measurable way in the molecular contents of saliva as well as blood.

A few researchers who study oral cancer also have been intrigued by the possibility that relatively high levels of proteins and other molecules from oral cancer cells might end up in saliva.

Current methods for oral cancer detection are visual.The dentist and hygienist examine the mouth. Suspicious looking bumps or patches are sampled, so that on the microscopic scale a pathologist can look for cancerous cells. These biopsies are a useful screening tool, but they are time consuming. Furthermore, cutting out tissue can be painful for the patient.

Disease screening in saliva might prove to be faster, less invasive, and potentially less expensive than blood tests or biopsies, according to UCSF oral and maxillofacial surgeon Brian Schmidt, DDS, MD, PhD. Schmidt runs a research lab focused in part on molecular sleuthing in saliva. The tricky part, he says, is to reliably detect molecules of interest that may be present only in low amounts.

Read more at Rachel Tompa, UCSF Science Cafe