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Biomarker research could lead to saliva test for pancreatic cancer

15 October 2013

A discovery by researchers at the UCLA School of Dentistry in the US could herald the development of a non-invasive way of testing for pancreatic cancer using saliva.

In a study using mice with pancreatic tumours, the UCLA researchers were able to prove that pancreatic cancer biomarkers can be found in saliva, although it is still not fully understood how they get there.

To date, sets of biomarkers found in saliva have been developed for several cancers, including breast, ovarian, lung and pancreatic.

Scientists have been puzzled as to how biomarkers produced by other parts of the body ultimately appear in the mouth. Many believe that molecules of RNA (which turn instructions set out in DNA into proteins to deliver the required function) may be secreted into the spaces in between cells to act as an information signalling system.

The UCLA team, led by Dr David Wong, the Dentistry School’s dean of research, was able to show that RNA molecules secreted by tumours were transported though tiny compartments within cells called exosome vesicles and are re-processed into saliva as biomarkers. To prove this, the researchers took mice with pancreatic cancer and whose saliva was positive for pancreatic cancer biomarkers, and prevented the production of these exomes at the tumour site. They found that the biomarkers were no longer found in the mice’s saliva.

Dr Wong says: "This paper is significant because it provides credibility to the mechanism of systemic disease detection in saliva. We have been able to substantiate the biological connection between systemic disease and the oral cavity."

Whilst much more research needs to be done before this knowledge can be applied into developing a diagnostic test, Dr Wong’s research team has recently received a $5 million research award from the US National Institutes for Health's Common Fund, which is considered by many as strong statement that saliva is proving to be scientifically credible for the detection of systemic diseases and is advancing toward clinical maturation.

The research findings are published in a recent issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

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