Published: 10 September 2015

Oral cancer test discovered at Surrey

A new early diagnostic test for oral cancer has been developed by researchers at the University of Surrey.

The team, featuring Professor Michael Hughes and Dr Fatima Labeed from the Centre for Biomedical Engineering at the University of Surrey, in conjunction with academics at the Eastman Dental Institute at University College London and the University of Loughborough, has devised a new method of diagnosing oral cancer using electric fields. 

In a paper published in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal, Analyst, Professor Hughes outlines the methodology of the test and the advantages of offering a potential low cost-per-test detection method for oral cancer with further potential cost reductions.

Professor Hughes said, “We have developed a new method of diagnosing oral cancer using electric fields. The test uses a brush to collect cells which are then posted to a lab (in this case Surrey) for analysis. It is low-cost (about £5 per test) and simple to perform; in this first study, we were accurate 81 per cent of the time – but since then, improving our methods has raised this to above 90 per cent, which we’re preparing to publish.”

In the paper, Professor Hughes highlights the fact that head and neck cancer including the oral cavity, represents the sixth most common cancer worldwide.

Professor Hughes explains the benefits of the new test: “There is no early diagnostic method for oral cancer available to dentists and GPs, and this could provide that – potentially saving over 1,000 lives a year in the UK - and substantially more in countries like India, where it kills 45,000 a year.”

Despite the accessibility of the oral cavity to clinical examination, difficulties in identifying and diagnosing oral cancers occur frequently, leading to discovery of the tumour occurring at an advanced – and usually untreatable - stage.

Professor Hughes explained: “Our study has shown for the first time that it’s possible to detect oral cancer from brush samples using dielectrophoresis (DEP) – a phenomenon in which Surrey has world-leading expertise.  DEP does not require labelling with antibodies or stains and it is an ideal tool for rapid analysis of cell properties.”

He concludes: “This study shows that it’s possible to develop a DEP machine that can be used at point of care, but also that samples are sufficiently robust to allow mail-in to centralized analysis laboratories, reducing the overhead costs – the analysis machine can sit in a hospital lab, and all dentists and GPs need is a brush, test tube and envelope.”

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