Scientists Develop First Saliva Test That Detects Throat Cancer in Asymptomatic Patients

Researchers developed a simple saliva test that detects early throat cancer in asymptomatic patients, according to the findings of a new study published the journal Frontiers in Oncology.

“The incidence of high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV)-driven throat cancers is on the rise in developed countries and, unfortunately, it is often discovered only when it is more advanced, with patients needing complicated and highly impactful treatment,” said QUT Faculty of Health’s Associate Professor Chamindie Punyadeera, who, with Dr Kai Tang, developed the test in a press release.

In this study, researchers used the non-invasive test to detect HPV-DNA in a saliva sample from an infected healthy person. “The series of saliva tests raised the alert and detected an early cancer before the person had any symptoms,” said Prof. Punyadeera. “This enabled removal of the tonsil which had a 2mm cancer in it, by straightforward local surgery alone.

“In the US, HPV-driven throat cancers have surpassed cervical cancers as the most common cancer caused by HPV but unlike cervical cancer, up until now, there has been no screening test for this type of oropharyngeal cancer.”

Professor Punyadeera stated the discovery was made during an HPV-prevalence study, comprised of 665 healthy individuals. “To take the test all the person has to do is give a salivary oral rinse sample. When the test shows HPV-16 DNA, it is repeated and if the presence of HPV-16 is persistent over a period of time we would be suspicious that there may be underlying cancer.

“The person whom we reported in this study had been consistently HPV-16 DNA positive for 36 months, with a steadily rising count of HPV-16 DNA after testing at 6, 12 and 36 months.

“The patient was found to have a 2mm squamous cell carcinoma in the left tonsil, treated by tonsillectomy. This has given our patient a high chance of cure with very straightforward treatment.


“Since the surgery, the patient has had no evidence of HPV-16 DNA in his saliva.”

“We now have the promise of a screening test for oropharynx cancer and there is an urgent need to undertake a major study to validate this test and the appropriate assessment pathway for people with persisting salivary HPV-DNA.”