Early detection of lung cancer is vital for increasing a patient’s survival rate and to prescribe the best form of treatment. Now New York researchers have developed an early detection method involving a simple cheek swab. Called partial wave spectroscopic (PWS) microscopy, this new technique involves shining diffuse light on cells from the swab. The test is able to distinguish individuals with or without lung cancer, even if the patient has been a lifelong smoker or suffers from other smoking related illnesses.

"This study is important because it provides the proof of concept that a minimally intrusive, risk-stratification technique may allow us to tailor screening for lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer deaths in Americans," said Dr. Hemant Roy of NorthShore University HealthSystems and the University of Chicago. "This represents a major step forward in translating biomedical optics breakthroughs for personalized screening for lung cancer."

Continual trials using the PWS light technique have helped researchers learn more about cell changes when cancer emerges somewhere in the body. When cancer is present within the body, healthy molecules in the nucleus appear to change, even when these cells are far from the actual tumor. This ability to affect cells far away from the source is called the "field effect" or "field of injury" effect and thus a simple cheek swab will reveal changes triggered by cancer cells in a patients lung.

"Microscopic histology and cytology have been a staple of clinical diagnostics detecting micro-scale alterations in cell structure," added Backman. "However, the resolution of conventional microscopy is limited. PWS-based nanocytology, on the other hand, detects cellular alterations at the nanoscale in otherwise microscopically normal-appearing cells."

"What is intriguing is that the very same nanoscale alterations seem to develop early in very different types of cancer including lung, colon and pancreatic cancers," Backman continued. "Not only does this suggest that nanocytology has the potential to become a general platform for cancer screening, but also that these nanoscale alterations are a ubiquitous event in early carcinogenesis with critical consequences for cell function. Elucidating the mechanisms of these alterations will help us understand the initial stages of carcinogenesis and improve screening."

The study has yielded promising results involving engineers and physicians from NorthShore University Health System, Northwestern University and New York University. The researchers are continuing to work towards a standard early detection technique. The full report is available in the journal Cancer Research.