Researchers to develop device for early oral cancer detection

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Researchers to develop device for early oral cancer detection


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A study, led by Dr. Javier A. Jo, will provide data to develop artificial intelligence algorithms that will distinguish between benign, precancerous and cancerous oral lesions. (Photograph: University of Oklahoma)

Mon. 23. September 2019


NORMAN, Okla., U.S.: A considerable proportion of oral cancer diagnoses are made when the cancer is advanced. A University of Oklahoma (OU) researcher is developing computer technology and a new medical device that will help detect oral cancer at an early stage, when the survival rate is much higher. The device would improve oral cancer treatment outcomes and the patients’ quality of life.

The research has been awarded a $2.5 million grant from the National Cancer Institute and aim to create an endoscope that will help identify precancerous and cancerous lesions of the mouth. “When oral cancer is diagnosed early, treating the patient is much more effective and a lot less invasive,” said Dr. Javier A. Jo, a professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the university and a member of the Stephenson Cancer Center at OU Medicine at the OU Health Sciences Center campus in Oklahoma City.

A general dentist is usually the first health provider to examine the tissue inside the mouth and search for oral lesions. According to Jo, it is often difficult to distinguish a benign lesion from other types of lesion, and a dentist’s knowledge of and experience in oral cancer screening may play an important role in oral cancer detection. Moreover, after discovering a suspicious lesion, the dentist would typically refer a patient to an oral pathologist for a tissue biopsy. If the lesion is large, the pathologist has to decide from which area to take the biopsy sample and may take it from a noncancerous portion of the lesion.

“Those are two main barriers to detecting oral cancer early,” Jo noted. “What’s missing is an objective and quantitative tool to provide more precise information about the presence of malignant versus benign lesions.”

Jo is developing fluorescence imaging endoscopes and combining them with artificial intelligence technologies. Since cancer cells divide very quickly, the researcher is looking for changes in the fluorescence characteristics of specific molecules associated with increased cell activity. Currently, the research team is engineering the endoscopes that will be sent to several clinical centers where patients with suspicious lesions will be imaged before having a biopsy to confirm or exclude the presence of oral cancer.

“Once we have a computer algorithm that can discern different types of lesions, we can put that algorithm into the endoscope and test it on a larger group of patients to see if it works with enough accuracy to be clinically useful,” Jo said. The technology will first be used in dentists’ offices and will later be tested by oral pathologists.

“We are excited by the prospects of Dr. Jo’s innovative research,” said Prof. Robert S. Mannel, Rainbolt Family Endowed Chair in Cancer and Director of the Stephenson Cancer Center. “Not only does it point to a promising avenue of improving patient outcomes through earlier cancer detection, it also underscores the close collaboration between Stephenson Cancer Center researchers at the OU Health Sciences Center and OU Norman campuses,” he concluded.

One thought on “Researchers to develop device for early oral cancer detection

  1. Stephen Lucas says:

    Very interesting. Especially from someone(me) that has had throat cancer

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