Scientists to make “lollipops” to aid mouth cancer diagnosis

Adding to the toolkit

Although this particular idea is the first of its kind for mouth cancer diagnosis, you might have heard of another early detection tool a bit like it. 

The Cancer Research UK-funded capsule sponge is a small, coated pill on a string that contains a sponge that expands when people swallow it.  

Once the pill reaches the stomach, the coating dissolves and the sponge expands. When the sponge is pulled back up, it collects some of the cells lining the oesophagus on its way. And the sponge can then be sent off for analysis in the lab. 

The capsule sponge is currently being tested in the BEST4 trial. The trial is monitoring people at high risk of oesophageal cancer, using the capsule sponge as a kinder alternative to endoscopy. Dr Gupta thinks the lollipops could represent something similar for the early detection of oral cancer. 

“In the first instance, it would likely be more appropriate to use this tool to screen individuals that are at high risk,” she said.  

“So, for example, people who smoke a lot, because because a high proportion of people who smoke develop oral cancer. And then maybe in the longer term, as we get more accurate biomarkers, it could be rolled out for mass production.” 

The future of early detection

Because the hydrogel technology is generic for protein detection, there could be the opportunity to expand it for use in detecting different types of cancers in future, provided there’s a protein-based biomarker for that cancer type. 

As the hydrogel develops, it could be expanded to accommodate larger sample volumes, it could be used in samples like urine samples as well as saliva. But these developments are likely to be a way off yet. 

“In the first three years, the aim is to show that the gel works well, with real samples in the lab,” said Gupta.  

“Maybe after that, the gels could be tested in animal models to make sure there aren’t any side effects we need to know about, but that’s a little beyond the scope of our current work.” 

“We’re really excited to start the next phase of this project. We’re hoping that we can be the first to make a device which is much kinder for diagnosing mouth cancer for patients and easier for GPs to use.” 

But imminent or not, this innovative project holds promise for a new, less invasive method of diagnosing mouth cancer. 

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