Head and neck cancers represent the 6th most common type of cancer in Europe with around 150,000 new patients per year. Despite its severity and increasing prevalence, there is little awareness of this pathology. 60% of patients with advanced disease at diagnosis die within 5 years. The most common cancer in the head and neck region is the Oral Squamous Cell Carcinoma (OSCC), which refers to cancer occurring at the border of lips, palates or at the posterior of the tongue.
Tobacco and alcohol consumption, together with oncogenic viruses (like papillomavirus, HPV, or Epstein Barr virus EBV) are known as risk factors. At the early stages, there is an 85% survival rate but curable lesions are asymptomatic. Thus, most of the patients seek care when OSCC is established and surgery with postoperative radiation or chemoradiation is needed. To prevent poor outcome, early detection is then crucial. However, common diagnostic tests are very invasive, including biopsy, endoscopy to detect second primary cancer, chest X-ray and contrast tomography of head and neck.
In order to improve the quality of diagnostic and prognostic early screening tests, and their compliance for a large cohort of potential patients, a number of biomarkers from body fluids have been identified. In this context, as inflammation plays a key role in different stages of carcinogenesis, cytokines (a class of biomolecules involved in inflammatory processes) may be used as marker for cell proliferation. Moreover, the use of salivary cytokines, and in particular interleukin-10 (IL-10), is gaining particular interest as its concentration has been demonstrated to increase in saliva from patients with oral cancer (also at initial stage) and for the obvious ease of collecting samples.
Going in this direction, SMILE project will join CNR NANOTEC and STMicroelectronics to develop a diagnostic tool for the on-chip and large-scale analysis of saliva, based on (i) an innovative high sensitivity detection method, (ii) smart materials mimicking biological capture probes with high selectivity and (iii) label-free detection of selected biomarkers.
The device will be realised as a compact, simple and low-cost microfluidic platform that may be used, for example by physicians or dentists, with minimal training. Thanks to their large audience of patients and the ease-of-use of the platform, they will be made able to provide, in a near future, a large-scale screening to radically hit OSCC incidence and to preserve oral health and SMILE.