Cancer Detecting Mouthwash

January 11, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
For a patient with head and neck cancer, the cure rate is only 30 percent. That's because the disease is often detected in the late stages. Now catching the cancer earlier may be as simple as gargling and spitting in a cup. A new mouthwash may be able to see what doctors can't.Edie Acosta calls them her angels ? the niece and nephew who gave her the courage to fight cancer.

"They cut from here, all the way down here," Acosta told Ivanhoe.

On her neck is the scar where a stage IV tumor was removed less than a year ago.

"It seemed bigger and bigger 'til it got to the size of a fist, a man's fist, and I couldn't even move my neck," Acosta said. "You feel like a little bird whose wings got cut and you can't fly anymore. I just, I thought I was really gonna die."

For patients like Acosta, late stage diagnosis makes treating neck cancer more difficult. Researchers developed a quick, inexpensive mouthwash to detect head and neck cancers earlier.

The patient rinses with the saline mouthwash. After they spit it out, doctors add antibodies that identify molecules involved with cancer. In about 48 hours, if there's cancer detected in the saliva, the molecules show up in color.

"We've found that these molecules show up differently in the oral rinses from patients that have cancer compared to patients that don't have cancer," Elizabeth Franzmann, M.D., an otolaryngologist at Sylvester Cancer Center at the University of Miami, told Ivanhoe.

In a study that included 102 head and neck cancer patients and 69 patients with benign disease, the oral rinse distinguished cancer from benign disease nearly 90 percent of the time.

For Acosta, 30 years of smoking has taken its toll. She hopes this new test helps others catch the cancer before it's too late. "I think that would be a miracle," she said.

If head and neck cancer is caught early, doctors say they could be able to cure at least 80 percent of cases. They're working on a version of the mouthwash that can be used as an over-the-counter test or administered at community health centers.


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