Just checking a lesion on the tongue or cheek with a gentle touch of a brush can help detect oral cancer as efficiently as more invasive techniques, say researchers at Rice University.
The test that uses Rice's diagnostic nano-bio-chip was found to be 97 percent "sensitive" and 93 percent specific in detecting which patients had malignant or premalignant lesions, results that compared well with traditional tests.
"One of the key discoveries in this paper is to show that the miniaturized, noninvasive approach produces about the same result as the pathologists do," said John McDevitt, the Brown-Wiess Professor of Chemistry and Bioengineering at Rice.
His lab developed the novel nano-bio-chip technology at the university's BioScience Research Collaborative.
The researchers are working to create an inexpensive chip that can differentiate premalignancies from the 95 percent of lesions that will not become cancerous.
The minimally invasive technique would deliver results in 15 minutes instead of several days, as lab-based diagnostics do now.
And instead of an invasive, painful biopsy, this new procedure requires just a light brush of the lesion on the cheek or tongue with an instrument that looks like a toothbrush.
"This area of diagnostics and testing has been terribly challenging for the scientific and clinical community. Part of the problem is that there are no good tools currently available that work in a reliable way," said McDevitt.
He said patients with suspicious lesions, usually discovered by dentists or oral surgeons, end up getting scalpel or punch biopsies as often as every six months.
"People trained in this area don't have any trouble finding lesions. The issue is the next step -- taking a chunk of someone's cheek. The heart of this paper is developing a more humane and less painful way to do that diagnosis, and our technique has shown remarkable success in early trials," said McDevitt.
The way forward is with nano-bio-chips-small, semiconductor-based devices that combine the ability to capture, stain and analyze biomarkers for a variety of health woes that also include cardiac disease, HIV and trauma injuries.
Researchers hope the eventual deployment of nano-bio-chips will dramatically cut the cost of medical diagnostics and contribute significantly to the task of bringing quality health care to the world.
Eventually, dentists may be the first line of defense against oral cancers, with the ability to catch early signs of the disease right there in the chair, said McDevitt.
The study appeared online in the journal Cancer Prevention Research.