Needle in a haystack – how to find mouth cancer before it’s even there

Posted under Research Projects on

Peter Rhys-Evans and Professor Jim McCaul

We are all familiar with the benefits of screening programmes for spotting cancers early and the advantages of early diagnosis are well known.    Screening for breast, there cervical and prostate cancer have become the norm, medicine but what if when we visit the dentist, order they were able to screen our mouths for cells which might become cancer?  This is the idea behind an innovative new Oracle project led by head and neck cancer surgeon, Peter Rhys-Evans and Consultant Maxillofacial surgeon, Jim McCaul.

It is often the case that mouth cancer or changes to the cells even before the cells become cancer cells, will show as changes to the lining of the mouth. Sometimes these appear as a patch of white or as a sore area.  If GPs and dentists see these patches they will refer the patient for diagnosis and treatment, but it is often difficult to assess where the abnormal patch of cells in the mouth starts and stops.

Now, a stain has been developed which provides a method of screening for pre-cancer cells.   Professor McCaul has carried out some initial studies on patients who have had a definite cancer diagnosis, with positive results for the accuracy of the stain and now this project will screen some 20-40 patients to identify pre-cancerous areas in the mouth as early as possible.

The stain can also be very helpful to surgeons who may be removing a particular area of cells in the mouth because using it will identify much more accurately the area of abnormal cells that needs to be taken out. It also means that patients would not need to have a wider area removed than is absolutely necessary.

This is the first time that the stain will be used on pre-cancerous patients.

 Professor McCaul says: “If this small scale Oracle trial demonstrates the positive results that we expect then it has the potential to be used in a large scale clinical trial at Cancer Research UK involving surgeons and dentists nationwide.”