Head and neck cancers affect nearly 50,000 people in the United States each year and are on the rise among men. The main risk factors include alcohol, smoking and human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection that often goes undetected. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have developed a new test that uses blood and saliva to detect head and neck cancers. While it will likely be years before the test is available to the public, these findings have raised hope for a cheap screening test that dentists or doctors could one day deliver during regular office visits.
The study comprised of 93 patients with cancer that had previously been diagnosed. In patients known to have HPV-driven cancers, researchers searched patients' blood and saliva samples for certain tumor-promoting, HPV-related DNA. In those with cancer not linked to HPV, the scientists looked for mutations in a handful of cancer-related genes. They found tumor DNA in the saliva of 71 of the 93 patients (76%) and in the blood of 41 of the 47 (87%). About half of the patients provided both saliva and blood samples, and the combined tests found tumor DNA in 45 of those 47 people (96%).
Lead author Nishant Agrawal, associate professor of otolaryngology and oncology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said, "We have shown that tumor DNA in the blood or saliva can successfully be measured for these cancers. Combining blood and saliva tests may offer the best chance of finding cancer. More trials on a larger number of patients are needed before the test can seek market approval. An early form of the test may costs thousands of dollars, but down the road it could be offered for $50 in a dentist's office or primary care setting."
Co-author Bert Vogelstein, professor of oncology at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, said, "Our ultimate goal is to develop better screening tests to find head and neck cancers among the general population and improve how we monitor patients with cancer for recurrence of their disease."
The research is published in Science Translational Medicine.