New Study Identifies Genetic Markers Linked to Oral Cancer

Dental researchers have identified genetic markers in saliva that could aid in the detection of oral cancer, according to a study published online in the journal Clinical Cancer Research.

The markers, called microRNAs, are molecules produced in cells that have the ability to simultaneously control activity and assess the behavior of multiple genes. Researchers believe they could hold the key to the early detection of cancer. The emergence of a microRNA profile in saliva represents a major step forward in the early detection of oral cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, about 35,720 new cases of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer will be diagnosed in the United States this year with an estimated 7,600 people dying from these cancers in 2009.

Dr. David T. Wong of the University of California, Los Angeles School of Dentistry and colleagues measured microRNA levels in the saliva of 50 patients with oral squamous cell carcinoma and 50 healthy control patients.

"The oral cavity is a mirror to systemic health, and many diseases that develop in other parts of the body have an oral manifestation," said Dr. Wong.

The researchers detected approximately 50 microRNAs. Two specific microRNAs were present at significantly lower levels in patients with oral cancer than in healthy control patients.

"It is a 'Holy Grail' of cancer detection to be able to measure the presence of a cancer without a biopsy, so it is very appealing to think that we could detect a cancer-specific marker in a patient's saliva," said Jennifer Grandis, M.D., professor of otolaryngology and pharmacology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Cancer Institute.

The study findings need to be confirmed by a larger and longer analysis, added Dr. Wong. The study was supported by grants from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

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