Grant to Support Handheld Oral Cancer Detector Development

Dentistry Today


Lesions are among the main early indicators of oral cancer, but determining whether a sore is actually malignant typically involves painful, costly biopsies. Researchers at Case Western Reserve University think they have a better idea, though, and the National Institutes of Health have given them $420,000 to advance it.

Highly collaborative in nature, the university said, the project teams researchers from its schools of dental medicine, medicine, and engineering. Their concept combines imaging and algorithmic technologies to assess whether or not a lesion’s cells are malignant.

“The idea is to quickly, easily, non-invasively, and cost-effectively determine if a suspicious lesion is cancerous or, in other cases, to screen individuals on a regular basis to see if their lesion has progressed to cancer,” said Aaron Weinberg, DMD, PhD, principal investigator and chair and professor in the dental school’s Department of Biological Sciences.

Oral cancer claims the life of someone in the United States every hour, the university said. With early detection the key to survival, Weinberg said, the researchers’ approach not only aims to reduce the need for biopsies but also provide a much needed diagnostic alternative in places where pathology services are few and difficult to access.

The researchers envision a handheld device that can determine the ratios of two key proteins, where one goes up in cancer while the other one does not. By collecting swabs from suspicious oral lesions and using fluorescent antibodies that bind specifically to one or the other protein within the cells, the device would collect images of fields of cells as an app converts the fluorescence intensity of each protein into numbers and calculate the ratio.

The numerical value above a given threshold would indicate cancer. The procedure already has been proven to be accurate and effective in laboratory-tested techniques, Weinberg said, and the intention is to convert the lab procedure into a device that will cut the time in obtaining results from two days to about 30 minutes.

“This will address major unmet needs in early oral cancer detection worldwide, especially in resource-poor settings where pathology review is lacking and/or unreliable,” said Weinberg.

Weinberg is joined in the research by:

  • Umut Garkan, PhD, the Warren E. Rupp Associate Professor at the Case School of Engineering
  • Anant Madabhushi, PhD, the F. Alex Nason Professor II of Biomedical Engineering and director of the Center for Computational Imaging and Personalized Diagnostics
  • Rod Rezaee, MD, associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology at the School of Medicine and University Hospitals

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