NHS England has given the green light and a £1 million grant for a team to develop a pain-free, non-invasive and instant way to detect mouth cancer.
Once built and tested, the new device could allow doctors and dentists to detect mouth cancer earlier and more accurately, reducing the need for patients to have invasive and painful biopsies.
This could provide better outcomes for patients and significant cost savings for the NHS.
The new device will use electrical impedance spectroscopy (EIS) technology – the same method which the NHS now use for early detection of cervical cancer.
Dr Keith Hunter, Professor of Head and Neck Pathology, at the University of Sheffield’s School of Clinical Dentistry, says: “Electrical impedance spectroscopy could help us to diagnose oral cancer earlier and more accurately, even when these cell changes may not be visually apparent.
“This could reduce the need for biopsies where there is no disease indicated – helping us to reduce patient anxiety and improve patient comfort. Hopefully developing less invasive techniques of diagnosing oral cancer will encourage more people to come forward with oral problems.”
Last year in the United Kingdom there were more than 8,300 new cases mouth cancer. This has risen by 49% in the last decade and means that mouth cancer is one of very few cancers on the increase.
Typically, mouth cancer is spotted at dental appointments by a visual examination. However, this presents problems as some of the visual signs can be misleading or non-apparent in some cases. Many other symptoms of mouth cancer such as constant bad breath and difficulty chewing, or swallowing can also be caused by other things than cancer.
This means the only way to have an accurate diagnosis of mouth cancer is through a biopsy of the tissue.
Dr Nigel Carter OBE, chief executive of the Oral Health Foundation, a charity that runs the campaign Mouth Cancer Action, believes the device has the potential to save millions of lives.
Dr Carter says: “A person’s chances of beating mouth cancer rely on how quickly it is diagnosed and treated. Sadly, survival rates of mouth cancer have barely improved in the last 20 years. This is because most cases are caught too late.
“Having a biopsy can be a painful and traumatic experience. Any device that can accurately diagnose mouth cancer while at the same time removing anxiety should be supported.
“There is a real and urgent need to find new ways of diagnosing mouth cancer. This new device has the potential to make an important contribution to the care and management of mouth cancer. By speeding up the process of diagnosis, you can move on to treatment much earlier. Not only does this give somebody a better chance of survival, it will also improve their quality of life.”
It is anticipated that the prototype will be ready for testing on a group of volunteers, with the aim to progress the project to a full clinical trial in the next 12 months.
Last year, 2,701 people in the UK lost their life to mouth cancer – around seven people every day.
Mouth cancer can appear in the cheeks, gums, lips, tongue and tonsils.
Look for mouth ulcers that do not heal within three weeks, red or white patches in the mouth, and any unusual lumps or swelling on the head or neck.
If any of these signs are spotted, make an appointment with your dentist.