"Brushing" away oral cancer

September 7, 2011 2:53:23 PM PDT
Every hour, one person dies of oral cancer.

Of the 36-thousand people who will be diagnosed this year, only slightly more than half will be alive in five years. Survivor rates are so low because often it's not detected until it's too late.

A simple, painless test at the dentist office could save your life.

Robert Levine avoided disaster just by going to the dentist. During a routine cleaning, Robert's dentist found something on the bottom of his tongue.

"He saw a white spot on one side," Levine said.

The almost undetectable spot was dysplasia -- a pre-cancerous cell.

"One of the biggest problems, once we find it and diagnosis, survival is less than a year," David Godin, MD Otolaryngologist Head & Neck Surgeon Beth Israel Hospital, said.

Godin says the key is to find it early before a pre-cancerous cell turns into a carcinoma. 95-percent of all cancers are carcinomas.

"This lining we're talking about is the thickness of a piece of paper," Mark Rutenberg, CEO and Co-Founder of OralCDx Laboratories, said.

Rutenberg used the same technology he created in the military to determine nuclear warheads from decoys to create oral c-d-x. It's used to detect abnormal cells among normal cells. It's a brush test that sweeps across the inside of the mouth.

"We check the mouth for white spots and red spots," Dr. Samuel Horowitz said.

Traditionally, cancerous cells were found after lesions or other symptoms appear. Then doctors performed a biopsy, which could miss cancerous cells. There's no anesthesia and takes just a few minutes.

The brush biopsy is sent to a lab where 200 of the most suspicious cells are analyzed by specially-trained pathologists. A cancerous cell has six to eight genetic mutations. A precancerous cell has four.

"If you can find those cells and remove them, you can prevent cancer before it starts," Rutenberg said.

Gastroenterologist elliot heller took part in a clinical trial using a similar brush test plus the traditional biopsy to detect esophageal cancer.

"We had a 40 percent increase of finding Barrett's," she said.

Although there is no one cause of oral cancer, a rise in this disease in women is believed to be due to a rise in HPV -- a sexually-transmitted disease that can be transmitted through oral sex and is known to cause oral cancers. Also, more young men are using smokeless chewing tobacco, which also contributes to this disease. Rutenberg says of the half a million tests done at his lab, the typical patient with precancerous cells is a 40-year-old, non-smoker.