Mouth Test Helps Identify Smokers at Risk for Lung Cancer
> 4/22/2008 1:10:50 PM

The formation of the tumors that typify lung cancer is often proceeded by the silencing of two specific genes, called p16 and FHIT. These genes are shut down through a process known as methylation, which involves the attaching of methyl group chemicals to the genes thereby deactivating them. In a recent study performed at the the University of Minnesota, researchers confirmed that by examining genetic information from the mouth, they could make a strong estimate about whether the genes in the lungs have been primed for tumor formation. This discovery opens the door for possible tests that may be able to diagnose lung cancer without invasive surgeries.

The study involved 125 chronic smokers who volunteered to provide oral and lung samples at baseline and three months. These samples were examined to assess whether methylation had caused either of the genes to shut down. When comparing the oral samples to the lung samples, the researchers found strong correlation between methylation in the former with methylation in the latter. 95 percent of the 36 participants who had methylation in their oral samples were found to have methylation in their bronchial samples. 69 percent of the remaining participants also had methylation in at least one of their bronchial samples without comparable effects in their oral samples.

This second figure illustrates that this technique of less invasive testing is immature. Still, first author Manisha Bhutani, M.D., a post-doctoral fellow at the Anderson Cancer Center sees much to be encouraged about. "Our study provides the first systematic evidence that accessible tissue, the oral epithelium, can be used to monitor molecular events in less accessible tissue," Bhutani said in a release. "This provides a convenient biomonitoring method to provide insight into the molecular events that take place in the lungs of chronic smokers."

As the process of gathering molecular information from the mouth to learn about genetic changes in other parts of the body improves, we may be able to more easily test for any number of conditions. The results of this study though point to a very simple test that could become an effective smoking cessation tool for doctors who are encouraging a patient to give up smoking. If a mouth swab can provide incontrovertible proof of the damage, and potential carcinogenic effects of smoking, smokers may be more inclined to give up the habit. This research takes us closer to a more friendly diagnosis tool, but it would be better for everyone if we had to use it far less frequently.

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