Scientists at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore say a simple mouth rinse may provide a new and easy way to screen for head and neck cancers in people who are at high risk for such diseases.
The team are in the process of developing an inexpensive, easy to perform and painless screening test that could pick up diseases such as mouth and throat cancer in heavy smokers, heavy drinkers and others at high risk.
The saliva test searches for cells with genetic signatures suggesting the presence of these cancers and in a "swish-and-spit" trial patients were asked to brush the inside of their mouths, then rinse and gargle with a salt solution.
The scientists then filtered out cells in the rinsed saliva that might contain one or more of 21 bits of chemically altered genes associated with head and neck cancers.
According to experts most head and neck cancer cases are linked to tobacco use, including smoking and smokeless tobacco and heavy drinking also increases a person's risk.
Other head and neck cancers are caused by the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus.
If these cancers are detected early, they are often curable.
Lead researcher Dr. Joseph Califano of the Johns Hopkins department of head and neck surgery says it is older people who smoke and drink a lot who tend to get head and neck cancer which are often difficult to diagnose until the cancer is in its late stages.
As it is then difficult to treat and cure and it would help if there was an easy way to identify people at risk for head and neck cancer that could be carried out by a nurse or a doctor.
In a trial the mouth rinse test was given to 211 people with head and neck cancers and another 527 people without the diseases and Califano says it correctly identified more than half the people with cancer as having the disease.
Califano says the researchers have since improved the test and he believes it will be impressive in terms of ability to detect the cancers but it could however be years before the test is widely used.
According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery, - in the United States alone, about 13,000 people die of cancers of the head and neck and about 55,000 develop these cancers each year.
The study was funded by the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, the Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, and National Cancer Institute and appears in the journal Clinical Cancer Research.