For the last 18 years, April has been designated as National Oral Cancer (OC) Awareness Month, and this year April 12-18 was recognized as Oral Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week. This is the time of the year where public health advocates, healthcare providers, survivors, patients, and others who are part of the OC community rally in activism to educate the public on the importance of OC screening and prevention.
According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, OC is responsible for the death of nearly one person every hour of every day of the year in the US. Of the people newly diagnosed with these cancers, only about 60% will live longer than 5 years.
There are 2 recognized risk factors associated with a diagnosis of OC:
- Use of tobacco and alcohol, a long term historic problem and cause
- Exposure to the HPV-16 virus (human papilloma virus version 16), a newly identified etiology, and the same one which is responsible for the vast majority of cervical cancers in women.
A contributing factor to the high death rate for patients with OC is that the disease is usually found in its later stages. If found early OCs have an 80 to 90% survival rate; the problem is that at this time the technology for accurate early detection is not available.
For Dr. Kristen Maitland PhD, associate professor, director of graduate programs, Department of Biomedical Engineering, Texas A&M University, this lack of technology is a problem she is aiming to rectify. Her research focuses on the development of optical instrumentation for improved detection and diagnosis of OCs. In her laboratory, they have developed a multi-scale, multi-modal optical imaging system currently being evaluated in a clinical trial. The technology uses:
- Fluorescence lifetime imaging for macroscopic guidance.
- Reflectance confocal microscope for detection of cellular changes associated with pre-cancer development.
- An increased microscopic scanning speed.
- A tunable focus lens for spectral encoding of depth.
This technology will allow healthcare providers to evaluate both the structural changes of tissue as well as molecular changes that take place on a cellular and tissue level. The ability to detect these changes are the key to diagnosing OC in its early stages when it is easier to treat.
In a university press release, Dr. Maitland discusses the importance of her lab’s work, “We want to enhance a doctor’s ability to detect the worst state of disease in the mouth. This is about increasing the diagnostic yield. For example, rather than taking a few biopsies from random sites to represent a large heterogeneous lesion, our system can guide the clinician to biopsy the tissue with the worst state of disease to provide a more accurate diagnosis, as opposed to possibly missing the cancer or pre-cancer.”
Dr. Maitland is the recipient of numerous awards in the field of science, including the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, the TEES Select Young Faculty Award. She is also a Senior Member the International Optical Engineering Society (SPIE): where she is part of the society’s editorial board and has published numerous scientific articles.
To hear Dr. Maitland discuss the important contribution her lab is making in the field of OC prevention, click here.