Health and geology experts work together in 250k project to improve early detection of oral cancer

Prof Val Speirs

UNIVERSITY of Aberdeen experts across the institutes of Dentistry, Medical Sciences and The School of Geosciences will work together to improve the ability to detect malignant changes in precancerous lesions which can develop into oral cancer in a £250k project.

Oral cancer is a growing health problem that has seen little improvement in survival rates, mainly because of late diagnosis when the disease has progressed beyond a cure.

One of the main challenges clinicians face is the lack of ways to reliably predict malignant changes in oral potentially malignant disorders (OPMDs) which carry a higher risk of developing into cancer.

The researchers will use techniques typically used in geological and material science to develop methods that can detect disease progression to help identify patients at early stages when the potential of a cure is more likely.

Funded by Cancer Research UK, the multidisciplinary team from the University of Aberdeen, including Dr Rasha Abu-Eid of the Institute of Dentistry, Professor Valerie Speirs from the Institute of Medical Sciences, and Dr Dave Muirhead, Head of the School of Geosciences, will work with specialists around the world including Professor WM Tilakaratne and Dr TG Kallarakkal from the University of Malaya in Malaysia, Professor BSMS Siriwardena  from the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka and Professor J James from Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Dr Rasha Abu-Eid explains: “In recent years we have seen a rise in oral cancer rates globally and despite advances in treatment, the mortality rates remain high.

“But like many other cancers, if oral cancer is caught early, there is a better chance of successful treatment. Therefore, identifying cancerous changes in premalignant lesions will help with early detection.

“Our work will use Raman Spectroscopy, a technique commonly used to identify the chemical composition and structure of minerals and materials, to generate chemical ‘fingerprints’ of tissues from the mouth. We will then use digital pathology to characterise the morphology of tissue images at the microscopy level. The two techniques will then be combined to identify profiles that can better predict the risk of developing cancer.

“This project represents a strong international multidisciplinary team that will tackle a growing global health problem. Methods used by the researchers will have wider applications for the study of different types of cancer. The findings will have great translational clinical potential that could aid in improving patient outcome.”

This study, to be conducted within the Aberdeen Cancer Centre, is expected to begin next month, and builds on pilot work funded by local charity Friends of ANCHOR.

Sarah-Jane Hogg, the charity’s director, added: “We’re very pleased to hear of the success Dr Abu-Eid has had in applying for significant grant funding for this important work into the early diagnosis of oral cancers. Early stage pilot research is the bedrock on which these vital, large-scale studies are built, which is why we commit up to £100,000 a year to fund up to seven such pilot projects.

“It’s thanks to the support of donors and fundraisers that we’re able to provide this funding, which has seen 79 projects supported since 2010. We’re fortunate in the North-east to have such pioneering minds right here in our city, whose work drives forward our understanding of the causes of cancers, and works to find better, faster ways to diagnose and treat these diseases.”

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