Portable Probe For Early Oral Cancer Detection Headed to Clinical Trials

Researchers, led by Biomedical Engineering Professor John Zhang, have developed a tool that could be used to diagnose oral cancer in real-time.

lasers in Dr. Zhang's lab

Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin, led by Biomedical Engineering Professor John X.J. Zhang, have developed a portable microscope that may reduce the time it takes to diagnose oral cancer.

Around 640,000 cases of oral cancer will be diagnosed worldwide this year, with 40,000 Americans affected. Historically, the death rate associated with oral cancers has been high, not because it is hard to diagnose, but due to the cancer being discovered later in its development.

The probe, presented recently in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering, could be used by doctors to diagnose oral cancer in real-time or as a surgical guidance tool; dentists could also use the probe to screen for early-stage cancer cells.

"Without a comprehensive program in the U.S. to more opportunistically screen for the disease, late stage discovery of oral cancer is more common," says Dr. John X.J. Zhang.

The technology behind the handhelp probe is displayed in Zhang's lab.

Due to lack of real-time efficient oral cancer screening tools, it is
estimated that approximately $3.2 billion is spent in the U.S. each
year on treatment of such cancers. Early detection would decrease
these costs significantly. Click to expand.

Oral cancers have been traditionally diagnosed by biopsy. Biopsied cells are sent to a pathologist who will examine the tissue to check for malignancies. Results will be sent back to the doctor for the next round of diagnoses or surgery. The whole process could take up to several weeks and can be costly, invasive, and painful.

Dr. Zhang's device uses a laser to illuminate areas of the sample and a micromirror. Micromirrors have previously been used in barcode scanners and fiber optic switches and are controlled by microelectromechanical systems, allowing the laser beam to scan an area in a programmed fashion. The low cost and ease of fabrication of micromirrors along with their easy integration into electronic systems make them an indispensable component of the probe. The successful pre-clinical studies were performed jointly with Division of Oral, Head, and Neck Pathology at UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. The lead researchers are graduate students Youmin Wang and Gauri Behave, and biomedical engineering undergraduate student Milan Raj and Nick Triesault.

The team is currently planning clinical trials to gain approval for the probe from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They predict that with few adjustments, the device could be built for one-fourth of the cost to build the microscopes that are currently used in diagnosis, which is around $300,000.

In the News

See other outlets that have announced the publication of Dr. Zhang's research in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering.