Oral cancer: Do you have symptoms? New technology could detect disease at an early stage

Oral cancer is more prevalent in adults over the age of 55, and tends to affect more men than women. Yet, early detection most likely results in a cure.

In partnership with Zilico Ltd, the University of Sheffield is developing a pain-free, non-invasive and instantaneous method to detect oral cancer.

The research collaboration has been awarded one million pounds in funding from SBRI Healthcare – an NHS England initiative.

Dr Keith Hunter, Professor of Head and Neck Pathology, at the University of Sheffield’s School of Clinical Dentistry said: “Mouth cancer is on the increase in the UK and globally.


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“We need new tools to be able to diagnose it earlier, as the survival rate for oral cancer patients depends on how early the disease is diagnosed and treated.”

The hope is that doctors will be able to detect oral cancer much sooner, reducing the need for patients to have invasive biopsies.

This would expand to more positive outcomes, as less people would have to wait anxiously to get their biopsy results.

And, should oral cancer be detected at the doctor’s office, treatment can begin more quickly.

Another bonus is that this speedy process will result in cost savings for the financially stretched NHS.

Zilico Ltd have already developed technology now used by the NHS for the early and non-invasive diagnosis of cervical cancer.

Now the medical device diagnostics company is using the same patented technology – electrical impedance spectroscopy (EIS) – to detect oral cancer.

Dr Hunter added: “Electrical impedance spectroscopy could help us to diagnose oral cancer earlier and more accurately, even when these cell changes may not be visually apparent.

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“This could reduce the need for biopsies where there is no disease indicated – helping us to reduce patient anxiety and improve patient comfort.”

Prior research from the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals demonstrated how EIS technology can differentiate between normal, precancerous and cancerous tissue according to its electrical properties.

This piece of research involved 47 patients who were recruited from the Charles Clifford Dental Hospital.

As it currently stands, oral cancer can only be confirmed by a biopsy, but this new device could change that.


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The prototype is currently being developed. The next steps involve assessment of the device and for it to be trialled in the NHS.

A full clinical trial is likely to take place this time next year, in summer 2021.

Jamie Healey, Lead Clinical Scientist at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “We are delighted to see that the clinical applications of electrical impedance spectroscopy are broadening.

“[This offers] the potential for many more patients to benefit from this novel technology.”

The NHS outlined what the most common symptoms of mouth cancer are, which include sore mouth ulcers that don’t heal within several weeks.

There may be unexplained, persistent lumps in the mouth or lymph nodes that don’t go away.

And other symptoms include unintentional weight loss, bleeding or numbness in the mouth, or difficulty moving your jaw.

Some people may experience pain or difficulty swallowing (called dysphagia). Mouth cancer doesn’t usually cause any noticeable symptoms during the earliest stage.

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