Gene marker panel picks out mouth cancers

Mouth cancer can be serious--if it is diagnosed at a late stage, only 10% to 30% of people will live for another 5 years. However, research from the U.K. and Norway has found genetic markers that may help to diagnose precancerous mouth lesions before they progress to cancer.

The current way of assessing any suspicious lesions involves a biopsy; this is invasive and may only pick up later stage disease when the chance of survival is low. Using biomarkers from a much smaller snippet of tissue could reduce the invasiveness and speed the route to treatment, increasing the chance of curing the disease. This has potential to save lives and cut healthcare costs, as well as provide an alternative to the "wait and see" approach.

The team, in research published online in the International Journal of Cancer, has created a quantitative Malignancy Index Diagnostic System (qMIDS) based on 14 genes linked with the cell life cycle and two reference genes. The researchers used the malignancy index, which takes only three hours to run, to screen head and neck tissue samples from 299 people from the U.K. and Norway, and were able to diagnose mouth cancers with a detection rate of up to 94%, and classify them according to aggressiveness. The screen could also pick out suspicious changes on the vulva and skin that could lead to cancer.

Professor Iain Hutchison, consultant oral and maxillofacial surgeon, founder of Saving Faces and co-author on the study, said: "We are excited about this new test as it will allow us to release patients with harmless lesions from regular follow-up and unnecessary anxiety, whilst identifying high-risk patients at an early stage and giving them appropriate treatment. Mouth cancer, if detected early when the disease is most receptive to surgical treatment, has a very high cure rate."

Mouth cancer, which is generally caused by chewing or smoking tobacco or through alcohol use, could affect more than a million people worldwide by 2030. However, only 5% to 30% of lesions in the mouth actually lead to cancer, and biomarkers could allow doctors to find these without patients having to go through further tests. The test, which could also have potential in other cancer types, needs to undergo larger clinical trials to look at its long-term clinical benefits before it can be used more widely.

- read the press release
- see the abstract