Promising blood test to detect head and neck cancer

Researchers at Flinders University hope their promising blood test model could help to diagnose a common form of head and neck cancer, in the same way diagnostic tests are available for other cancer types.

While cervical, breast, prostate and colorectal cancers can be detected via tests such as the pap smear, mammogram, prostate specific antigen test and faecal occult blood test - there is currently no such test to detect head and neck cancers.

But a Flinders team led by Dr Damian Hussey and Associate Professor Eng Ooi hope to change that.

Using blood donated by Flinders Medical Centre patients, the group have discovered a blood biomarker for oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma – the fastest growing type of head and neck cancer.

This exciting discovery stems from the team’s previous work on a different type of head and neck cancer - laryngeal cancer - which was made possible thanks to a Flinders Foundation Health Seed Grant.

“When cancer develops, it sheds bits of itself into the blood circulation and those little bits carry molecules inside which we can measure,” Dr Hussey explains.

“Our work is about finding the molecules in blood that distinguish people with the cancer from people without the cancer - then we develop specific ways to measure those molecules in a combination to produce a ‘molecular signature’ that gives an accurate test result.”

The Global Burden of Disease (2017) attributes more than 380,000 deaths annually to Head and Neck cancer.

With oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma mainly affecting young men aged 30-50, the researchers are now looking to further improve the accuracy of the test, and get it to the stage that it could be offered to patients attending a head and neck cancer clinic.

“Eventually the idea is that someone would come in to see a specialist and have the test. That patient may have a suspicion of cancer or symptoms like a sore throat, or they may have already had cancer and treatment and it could be used regularly to detect early recurrence,” Dr Hussey says.

A/Prof Ooi, who is also Head of Otorhinolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery at Flinders Medical Centre, said future possibilities also included making the test available to GPs.

“Early detection of head and neck cancer at an early stage is very important,” Dr Ooi said.

“At the moment, patients might see their GP and be treated for a sore throat with antibiotics, and if in a few months it is still there, they get referred on to a specialist.

“But where there is a high risk of throat cancer, a test could avoid this wait and allow patients to be referred to a head and neck cancer specialist for urgent assessment and biopsy, giving them the chance of a better outcome.”

This work was supported by a grant from Flinders Foundation and from the Garnett Passe and Rodney Williams Memorial Foundation.

Pictured: The Head and Neck Cancer blood biomarker development team. From left to right; Associate Professor Eng Ooi , Dr Damian Hussey, Dr George Mayne and Dr Charmaine Woods.

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