Author: Alexi Cohan

A saliva-based diagnostic test that can detect HPV-related head and neck cancer has the potential to catch the disease earlier and even serve as a standard screening method, which the medical community currently lacks.

Oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma, a cancer caused by human papillomavirus that develops in the mouth and throat, is expected to cause more than 10,000 deaths this year, according to the American Cancer Society. Cases have been increasing significantly in men in recent years.

But there is no screening method for this cancer right now, said Charlotte Kuperwasser, chief of clinical operations at Natick-based diagnostics company Naveris. She said most men who contract it will notice a lump in their throat and go to the doctor. But by that time, the cancer could be quite advanced.

The new saliva test developed by Naveris has been shown to detect HPV-associated head and neck cancer with high accuracy, which is a first-of-its-kind study result and could offer a patient-friendly way to catch the cancer early.

“Saliva is actually a very easy source, very non-invasive. It doesn’t require a medical professional to collect, it could even be done at home so there’s a lot of advantages to saliva,” Kupperwasser told the Herald.

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis used the test to successfully analyze saliva for HPV genomes that are specific for DNA released from cancerous tumors. The study results highlighted the potential to use the test to catch the cancer early.

“Then, you can actually intervene and make a difference and prevent these cancers from showing up,” Kupperwasser said.

The saliva test builds off a Naveris blood test that detects HPV-associated head and neck cancer earlier than is possible with cancer imaging. That technology is already being used by hundreds of doctors.

Finding a way to detect HPV-related cancer early can’t come soon enough. Kupperwasser said by 2035, HPV cancers are expected to become the third leading cancer type among white men.

“The incidence is going up dramatically and the prevalence is getting to be so high,” Kupperwasser said.

Human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted virus and infection in the United States. More than one of five U.S. adults are infected with a high-risk strain of HPV that can potentially develop into cancer.

But many people might not have any symptoms of HPV, which can take decades to turn into cancer.

Kupperwasser said a similar situation unfolded with cervical cancer in the United States. Cases were going up and a screening mandate was put into place, helping significantly.

She said the same thing could happen with the saliva test if it were used as a standard screening method.

The saliva test could be available to patients within 18 months, but it remains in clinical trials, said Kupperwasser.