Scientists from the University of California at Los Angeles claim to have developed a new technique for detecting cancer in a single drop of a person’s saliva. Though the method is still being trialed in China, the team behind the new test hopes to see it rolled out in Europe before the decade is up, and says it could take as little as 10 minutes to give a result.
If successfully deployed, the new technology could replace blood tests as the main means of detecting cancer. Aside from being invasive, these often take around two weeks to complete, as blood samples have to be analyzed in a laboratory. The saliva test could therefore save valuable time and enable doctors to detect and treat cancer earlier than currently possible.
Presenting the new method at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Professor David Wong explained that “early detection is crucial” when it comes to cancer, adding that “any time you gain in finding out that someone has a life-threatening cancer” could be vital.
The test, which has been described as a “liquid biopsy,” was developed after researchers discovered that traces of RNA from cancer cells can be found in saliva. RNA is a molecule that plays a key role in the transcription of DNA – the process by which our genetic material is "read" in order to produce proteins. By examining RNA in samples it is therefore possible to tell what sorts of processes are going on inside a cell, including those associated with cancer.
According to Wong, the new test works by seeking out fragments of tumor RNA in saliva, and has so far yielded “near perfect” results when trialed on lung cancer patients.
The saliva test is expected to cost about $22, and can be performed in pharmacies, at doctors’ offices or even at patients’ homes. Furthermore, Wong claims that once the method is perfected, it could be used to detect multiple types of cancer in a single test, whereas, at present, different types of cancer require a different screening process.
Some cancers, such as pancreatic cancer, currently have no effective early detection test, although the team behind the saliva test hopes to rectify that once its method becomes widely available.