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Scientists to make ‘lollipops’ to aid mouth cancer diagnosis

by Yvonne Ijeh | News

22 March 2024

1 comment 1 comment

Five lollipops in assorted colours
Shutterstock - mayakova

Currently, diagnosing mouth cancer can be a time-consuming and invasive procedure. It can involve putting a flexible camera on the end of a tube through the nose or mouth and taking a biopsy for testing.  

But thanks to a pioneering project, funded by us and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, we may be able to swap those tests for a sweeter option. 

Dr Ruchi Gupta at the University of Birmingham has been funded to continue the development of a flavoured ‘lollipop’, which could help diagnose oral cancers at earlier stages when treatment is more likely to be successful.  

How will it work? 

The plan is to make these lollipops from a material called a hydrogel. 

A hydrogel is a type of smart material, made up of 99%, water, and 1% polymer. They’re designed to capture proteins like a fishing net. 

When cancers grow, they make proteins that aren’t found in normal cells. That means that we can look for these proteins when trying to find signs of cancer when it first starts growing. 

“Smart hydrogels have really exciting potential for diagnosing mouth cancer,” said Dr Gupta. “They can be easily moulded into shapes as a solid to ‘catch’ proteins in saliva.” 

Later, when scientists expose it to a certain colour of light, the gel would release the captured proteins, allowing them to analyse the proteins it captured for any that could be indicative of mouth cancer. 

The next step

Currently, artificial protein samples have been made in the lab to test whether the hydrogel can pick them up. At the moment, the hydrogel has to be immersed in these samples for quite a long time, even as long as 12 hours.  

It goes without saying that a 12-hour test isn’t suitable for patients, so Dr Gupta and team are working to reduce that capture time. In the clinic, the test will ideally take no more than 10 minutes.  

And then the next goal would be to test the gel with even more complex samples. There are a lot of proteins in saliva, and the test needs to be able to accurately detect the proteins associated with mouth cancer. 

Faye Bishop

Faye’s story

Faye Bishop was diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2013 after a biopsy. 

“I think the lollipop idea is brilliant because it will be much less daunting for people,” she said. “I remember being very anxious when I had my biopsy.”  

“The procedure itself was bad enough but the fear of knowing I might have cancer made it so much worse.” 

Faye underwent extensive surgery to reconstruct her tongue as well as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She was unable to eat or speak for six months and had to have a tracheostomy as well as a feeding tube into her stomach. 

“Doctors thought I might never be able to eat or speak again but I was absolutely determined so just kept practicing my speech,” said Faye.

“Thanks to my parents being there for me and bribing me to eat with pieces of cake, I slowly got better. 

“If this new diagnostic tool becomes a reality, then I’m sure it will help people feel more at ease.  

“I know only too well the devastating effects that mouth cancer can have if not diagnosed early so anything that encourages people to get tested at the earliest opportunity is absolutely priceless.” 

Adding to the toolkit

Although this particular idea is the first of its kind for mouth cancer diagnosis, you might have heard of another early detection tool a bit like it. 

The Cancer Research UK-funded capsule sponge is a small, coated pill on a string that contains a sponge that expands when people swallow it.  

Once the pill reaches the stomach, the coating dissolves and the sponge expands. When the sponge is pulled back up, it collects some of the cells lining the oesophagus on its way. And the sponge can then be sent off for analysis in the lab. 

The capsule sponge is currently being tested in the BEST4 trial. The trial is monitoring people at high risk of oesophageal cancer, using the capsule sponge as a kinder alternative to endoscopy. Dr Gupta thinks the lollipops could represent something similar for the early detection of oral cancer. 

“In the first instance, it would likely be more appropriate to use this tool to screen individuals that are at high risk,” she said.  

“So, for example, people who smoke a lot, because because a high proportion of people who smoke develop oral cancer. And then maybe in the longer term, as we get more accurate biomarkers, it could be rolled out for mass production.” 

The future of early detection

Because the hydrogel technology is generic for protein detection, there could be the opportunity to expand it for use in detecting different types of cancers in future, provided there’s a protein-based biomarker for that cancer type. 

As the hydrogel develops, it could be expanded to accommodate larger sample volumes, it could be used in samples like urine samples as well as saliva. But these developments are likely to be a way off yet. 

“In the first three years, the aim is to show that the gel works well, with real samples in the lab,” said Gupta.  

“Maybe after that, the gels could be tested in animal models to make sure there aren’t any side effects we need to know about, but that’s a little beyond the scope of our current work.” 

“We’re really excited to start the next phase of this project. We’re hoping that we can be the first to make a device which is much kinder for diagnosing mouth cancer for patients and easier for GPs to use.” 

But imminent or not, this innovative project holds promise for a new, less invasive method of diagnosing mouth cancer. 


  • Lorraine Mccreery
    28 March 2024

    I think it’s a brilliant idea and hopefully more solutions will be available to people who need a less invasive approach.

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  • Lorraine Mccreery
    28 March 2024

    I think it’s a brilliant idea and hopefully more solutions will be available to people who need a less invasive approach.

Tell us what you think

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read our comment policy.