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Spit Test


By Dan Gordon '85

Published Oct 1, 2006 12:00 AM

Copyright © Illustration by Ellen Weinstein

Spit gets a bad rap. We can't live without it — the liter of saliva we produce each day enables us to talk and eat, yet spit remains underappreciated. Discharging one's saliva in public is considered rude, aiming the juice at another person the ultimate insult.

But what if you could find out if you have certain types of cancer or other diseases — early enough to cure them, and within a day, maybe even less — just by spitting into a cup? Would we feel differently about spit? Could it even become... cool?

Probably. And researchers at the UCLA School of Dentistry are working to make that happen. This month, their breakthrough research into diagnosing oral cancer through a simple spit test will be presented at the American Dental Association's annual convention in Las Vegas. In fact, dentists in attendance there will be able to take their own spit test.

Most oral cancers aren't diagnosed until a patient, or their dentist, actually sees something wrong. But the School of Dentistry's advance is a simple saliva test that detects oral cancer at its earliest stage, before symptoms develop. In pilot studies, the test has been given to 100 oral cancer patients and 100 healthy people, correctly identifying oral cancer 82 percent of the time. (By comparison, the blood test currently used widely for the diagnosis of prostate cancer is approximately 70 percent accurate.) The saliva test will be studied in a larger, multicenter clinical trial beginning later this year; if successful, it could soon become a routine part of dental practices. Saliva is easy to collect and poses none of the risks, fears or invasiveness of blood tests, allowing patients to avoid a needle prick.