Researchers hope ‘lollipops’ could detect mouth cancer

Researchers at the University of Birmingham have received funding for a project to create mouth cancer-detecting lollipops.

The flavoured lollipop could be set to speed up diagnoses and identify cancer at an earlier stage.

They will be made using a type of smart material called hydrogel, which would be designed to capture proteins from the patient’s saliva. The hydrogel concentrates and labels proteins using a fluorescent marker, which then attaches to the hydrogel with a photocleavable bond.

The hydrogel would then be taken to a laboratory, where it will release its captured proteins when exposed to a specific colour of light, allowing any proteins produced by mouth cancer to be observed.

Cancer-detecting lollipops

The cancer-detecting lollipops would make the process of diagnosis far less invasive. It can currently involve taking biopsies using flexible cameras, which are often painful for the patient.

Early detection would also give patients a greater chance of successful treatment.

Each year, around 12,400 people are diagnosed with head and neck cancers in the UK. The new cancer-detecting lollipop could make such diagnoses faster and cheaper.

Cancer Research UK and the Engineering and Physical Services Research Council are behind the £350,000 grant, which will provide the project with three years of funding.

Dr Ruchi Gupta at the University of Birmingham is leading the project. ‘Smart hydrogels have really exciting potential for diagnosing mouth cancer,’ she said. ‘They can be easily moulded into shapes as a solid to “catch” proteins in saliva.’

The process of capturing the protein currently takes 12 hours, but researchers hope to cut this down to just 10 minutes.

Further tests are also needed to accurately detect the complex proteins associated with mouth cancer among the many other proteins found in saliva.

The research has opened a new chapter in the use of biocompatible hydrogels, which have previously been employed for tissue regeneration and drug delivery.

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