How your dentist could spot oral cancer in 20 minutes in quick 'lab on a chip' test
06:35 GMT, 13 April 2012
A revolutionary technique could allow dentists to diagnose oral cancer in under 20 minutes.
The test involves collecting cells from a patient’s mouth using a brush and then getting a rapid reading from a desk top computer.
Currently, biopsy testing for a suspicious lesion means mouth tissue has to be taken by a dentist or GP using a scalpel, then sent off to a lab for analysis.
Quick test: Dental patients could learn the results of mouth cancer tests within minutes thanks to a new diagnostic technique
The process can take two or three weeks, causing extra distress for the patient when nine out of 10 checks turn out not to be cancer.
Professor Martin Thornhill from the University of Sheffield, working with researchers from Rice University in the U.S., is leading a two-year trial at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals which could result in the new technique becoming standard practice at dental clinics.
The ‘lab on a chip’ uses biologic agents and small sensor chips which are combined on a single slide that looks like a credit card.
The revolution is the tests can be done at the dentist's practice, with the credit card slotting into a battery-powered portable machine, known as a lab on a chip (LOC) analyser.
Cell samples are take using a miniature toothbrush-type device and placed on the card.
This is inserted into the LOC and then washed through with microfluidic circuits into a reaction chamber, where they come into contact with biomarkers that react with diseased cells.
Healthy and diseased cells can then be distinguished by the way they glow in response to two LEDs inside the machine.
So far 275 Sheffield patients have been recruited for the trial, which will finish later this year and establish whether the new technique is as effective as having a biopsy.
Altogether 20 patients have tested positive for oral cancer, with most completely unaware they had the disease.
At present patients have an average survival rate of 50 per cent, but in cases where the cancer is detected early more than 90 per cent live longer than five years.
'There is no pain, no local anaesthetic,
the patient does not have to make multiple visits, and experience the
anxiety of waiting for results' Professor Thornhill, Professor of Oral
Medicine at the University Sheffield
Professor Thornhill, Professor of Oral Medicine at the University and Honorary Consultant in Oral Medicine at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, believes a ‘chair-side check’ could be standard practice in dental surgeries in three to five years.
In many cases, it could be given to patients who have come in for a filling but is found to have the type of lesions often associated with oral cancer.
He said ‘Usually, these lesions are not cancerous but they need to be investigated and this method would be a much more effective and efficient way of doing that.
‘The test can be done in the chair with a miniature tooth brush and the results will be there for you in the waiting room.
‘There is no pain, no local anaesthetic, the patient does not have to make multiple visits, and experience the anxiety of waiting for results – which usually takes two weeks but can take three.
‘With our new technology, a brush can be used to remove a few cells painlessly and a result could be produced in minutes.’
Tongue with squamous cell carcinoma: The new test takes cells from a suspected cancer site and analyses them on a 'lab on a chip' in a desktop computer
The trials included Carole Scott, 51, of Gleadless, South Yorkshire, who was diagnosed with oral cancer last December after a biopsy.
When she returned for a precautionary test on the other side of her mouth, she was given both tests.
She said ‘The new technology is fantastic and taking part has been very easy and simple. For me there was no comparison between the biopsy and the new test.
‘Using the brush was just so much easier – I hardly felt anything. I would recommend it to anyone.
‘I can see real benefits for patients like me in the future. The technology could really reduce the waiting time for patients and give much more peace of mind.
‘To get your results in just a few minutes, which may well be possible, would save a lot of worry. I hope it will become the standard test in the future.’
The scientists hope the technology could be adapted for other uses including detecting heart attacks, or testing a driver for drugs at the roadside.