Simple cheek swab may be detect lung cancer

We are always amazed at some of the advancements being made in the field of cancer diagnosis and detection. When it comes to lung cancer, these new detection methods are especially important, as lung cancer is notoriously difficult to diagnose when it is in the earliest stages – and is easiest to treat.

Scientists report that a new diagnostic technique called Partial Wave Spectroscopic, or PWS Microscopy, is able to detect the presence of lung cancer. A group of NorthShore University and New York University researchers, including engineers and doctors, released their findings in this month’s issue of Cancer Research.

The process involves swabbing a person’s cheek and then shining a special light on the extracted cells. Dr. Hemant Roy of NorthShore University HealthSystems and the University of Chicago, calls PWS Microscopy “important because it provides the proof of concept that a minimally intrusive technique may allow us to tailor screening for lung cancer.”

He goes on to remind people that lung cancer is the leading cause of death for Americans. This year alone, the American Cancer Society predicts that at least 160,000 people will die as a result. Since 2003, just shy of one million Americans have died from lung cancer. It is really no surprise, considering the number of people who are longterm cigarette smokers and tobacco users. However, people who have never smoked can also get lung cancer.

The study of PWS Microscopy is just one of many studies of the effectiveness of “light-scattering analysis technique,” and studies specific to the detection of colon and pancreatic cancer have also been completed. Since 2002, Dr. Roy and his partner and co-author of the most recent study, BioEngineer Vadim Backman, have been working tirelessly with funding from grants to perfect the diagnostic technique.

“The results have even larger implications in that the techniques could be applied to a multitude of epithelial cancers, the most common cancer type,” says an expert who has long supported the studies.

Research indicates that PWS Microscopy and the similar technologies that came before it, including four-dimensional elastic light scattering fingerprinting [4D-ELF] and low-coherence enhanced backscattering [LEBS] can show just what happens to a cell when cancer is present within the body. It allows doctors to distinguish “affected cells” [which includes unhealthy cells that are not part of a malignant tumor] from normal cells. The affected cells have molecules that have undergone a change that allows light to filter through the cell, which tells diagnostic technicians that something is awry. It’s called the “Field Effect,” and these new techniques allow doctors to determine whether or not cancer is present by using cells in the cheek – far away from cells that have been invaded by cancer in the lungs.

The latest technique, according to Backman, “detects cellular alterations at the nanoscale” in cells that, under a microscope, might appear normal. The changes in cells of patients with lung, pancreatic and colon cancer happen early, so Backman believes that it is important to continue developing this kind of diagnostic procedure in an effort to diagnose patients as early as possible, when the cancer is most easily treated.

There are a few different types of lung cancer: Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer, or NSCLC, which accounts for almost 80% of all lung cancer. Small Cell Lung Cancer, or SCLC, is generally caused by smoking cigarettes. Symptoms of lung cancer in general include chest pain, persistent cough, chronic bronchitis or other lung problems, blood-containing mucus or phlegm, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, and hoarseness. People with undiagnosed lung cancer may also begin to lose weight, experience headaches or joint pain, have swelling in their face or neck, and may feel weak and tired. These symptoms are similar to symptoms of less serious conditions, including the flu or pneumonia, so it is important to report these types of warning signs to your physician – especially if you are or were a smoker or user of tobacco.

Smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer, accounting for close to 90% of all cases. Secondhand smoke exposure actually increases a person’s risk of lung cancer by up to 30%! Other risk factors include asbestos exposure, which causes a fatal cancer known as malignant mesothelioma, of which there are three types. Exposure to air pollution, radiation, and having a history of Tuberculosis can also lead to lung cancer. Some people are diagnosed as a result of their genetic history.

If you would consider yourself a longtime smoker or user of tobacco, screening for lung cancer is crucial. After age 60, it is recommended that you undergo screenings, which may include a CT scan. Other diagnostic techniques include a biopsy or chest X-ray, and now, tests involving light-scattering procedures.

For now, patients with lung cancer, as well as the doctors and scientists who study the disease, remain hopeful that new diagnostic procedures will result in more patients receiving their diagnosis in the earliest stages of the disease.

The National Science Foundation has provided grants to fund the aforementioned research.


National Science Foundation

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