A study looking at a another way of testing for mouth cancer

Cancer type:

Head and neck cancers
Mouth (oral) cancer





This study looked at another way to diagnose mouth cancer. It used a brush to collect abnormal cells.

More about this trial

Your doctor usually takes a sample of tissue if you have a white patch inside your mouth and the cause isn’t clear. To do this they cut a circle of tissue out from the affected area with a small knife (scalpel). This is called a scalpel biopsy. The doctor sends this to the laboratory. A pathologist  Open a glossary itemexamines the cells under a microscope.

This study looked at another way of collecting and diagnosing abnormal mouth cells. It involved using a small soft bristle brush. The doctor rubbed the brush over the abnormal area to remove some cells. A computer then studied the cells and gave a diagnosis. The method is called the ‘lab on a chip’ method. It used substances and small sensor chips which are combined on a single slide that looks like a credit card. This card slots into a battery-powered portable machine, known as a lab on a chip (LOC) analyser.

This test should cause less discomfort than the scalpel biopsy. And results should be back within minutes, rather than days. Researchers hoped this would mean that in future people wouldn’t need to have a biopsy.

The aims of this study were to:

  • develop the method and make it work as well as possible to identify cells and biomarkers Open a glossary item
  • make sure the method could tell the difference between healthy cells, abnormal cells (dysplastic) Open a glossary item and cancerous mouth cells

Summary of results

The study found that the lab on a chip method could correctly diagnose mouth cancer. It could identify which cells were normal and which were abnormal. 

But this technology is still in the early stages and researchers are planning to develop it further. 

About this trial
This study was open for people to join between 2010 and 2012. Researchers published the results in 2016. It took place worldwide.

714 people took part in this pilot study.  They all had suspicious areas in the mouth such as white patches in their mouth. 

Everyone gave:

  • a tissue sample of the suspicious area for a biopsy
  • 2 brush samples from the mouth 

They also took brush samples from 150 healthy volunteers. This was so they could compare normal mouth cells with abnormal mouth cells. 

Specialist doctors (pathologists) analysed the samples. They sent the brush samples off for testing using the lab on a chip method. 

They found:

  • 348 people didn’t have cancer
  • 49 people had slight cell changes
  • 18 people had moderate cell changes
  • 12 people had severe cell changes
  • 2 people had early signs of mouth cancer
  • 135 people had mouth cancer 

The researchers compared the results of the scalpel biopsies with the brush biopsies. The brush biopsy method gave an accurate diagnosis 70 out of 100 times (70% of the time). This compared to the pathologists agreeing on an initial diagnosis from a scalpel biopsy. This was 69 out of 100 times (69% of the time). 


The study team concluded that the method of using a computer to diagnose the samples worked well. It was accurate and correctly predicted a diagnosis 70 out of 100 times. 

The researchers hope that in the future it might be possible to do the test at the dentist's practice. Researchers are still looking at the method in clinical trials to develop it further.  

Where these results come from 
We have based this summary on information from the research team. The information they sent us has been reviewed by independent specialists (peer reviewed Open a glossary item ) and published in a medical journal. The figures we quote above were provided by the trial team who did the research. We have not analysed the data ourselves.

Recruitment start:

Recruitment end:

How to join a clinical trial

Please note: In order to join a trial you will need to discuss it with your doctor, unless otherwise specified.

Please note - unless we state otherwise in the summary, you need to talk to your doctor about joining a trial.

Chief Investigator

Dr John McDevitt (US)

Supported by

NIHR Clinical Research Network: Cancer
National Institute of Health (USA)

If you have questions about the trial please contact our cancer information nurses

Freephone 0808 800 4040

Last review date

CRUK internal database number:

Oracle 7258

Please note - unless we state otherwise in the summary, you need to talk to your doctor about joining a trial.

Over 60,000 cancer patients enrolled on clinical trials in the UK last year.

Last reviewed:

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