M. Sharon Stack, Ann F. Dunne and Elizabeth Riley Director of the HCRI and professor of chemistry and biochemistry, points out that oral cancers are a significant global health problem. Although tobacco and alcohol awareness have helped decrease the overall incidence of oral cancers, HPV-positive cancers, especially oropharyngeal cancers, have risen significantly.
Stack and Hsueh-Chia Chang, Bayer Professor of Engineering and director of Notre Dame’s Center for Microfluidics and Medical Diagnostics, are attempting to prescreen for oral cancer and HPV by examining the micro-RNAs of tumor cells. They are working on developing a microfluidic sensor to help detect the presence of tumor cells.
The researchers point out that to be effective, the screening tests need to be done regularly, for example at a dentist’s office during teeth cleaning. Rinsing with a mouthwash at a dentist’s office can produce up to 10,000 cells that can be tested. In order to be feasible for a dentist’s office, the screening process must be low-cost, rapid and patient-friendly.
Chang’s research group has developed a microfluidic membrane sensor that can be used for this type of rapid screening. Although he points out that his sensor is not as accurate as optical sensors such as real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR), it is much cheaper ($1 versus $45 per test) and is rapid and can be used by personnel in a dentist’s office. It also will allow the quantification of a panel of micro-RNAs.
The researchers believe that such a rapid and low-cost device would help to better reach high-risk patients prior to development of last-stage disease.