The Canadian Cancer Society estimates 4,400 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year. The deadly disease can often go undiagnosed because it is tough to screen for dormant symptoms. But now, researchers at UBC are developing a new test that will be able to detect oral cancer at a much earlier stage.

Dr. Catherine Poh, an oral pathologist who also teaches dentistry at UBC, spoke with the Early Edition's Rick Cluff about the latest developments.

What can you tell us about this new brushing test you're working on?

We are a proposing a non-invasive approach to analyse genetic material collected from patients mouths using a simple brush. This can be done by a dentist or at a family doctor's office.

This test would detect genetic change that happens in human genomes from the cells collected from the mouth. We have shown that it has a prediction for the risk for oral cancer development.    

How does your test compare to how oral cancer is detected right now?

Right now the majority of oral cancer has been screened by dentists because many of the oral cancer [diagnosis] come with no pain or no symptoms. Through the dental regular checkups it can be detected early, otherwise patients come with a sore in their mouths that is essential a delay in the diagnosis.

What symptoms should people look out for?

Many people know your mouth can be sore and that's not a sign of oral cancer. I'm suggesting people look for a mouth sore that doesn't heal within three to four weeks or there's colour change with white or red bumps that don't get resolved. [This warrants a] checkup from your family dentist or doctors.

Who does oral cancer affect?

Traditionally 75 per cent are smokers and drinkers, however we're aware there are a number of rising incidents within the younger non-smoker, non-drinker group. Studies show increasing risks of tongue cancer for women aged 18 - 44.

We don't know [the exact reason] yet. There are people talking about chronic inflammation and infection so we are looking for more details into that aspect.

If it is caught early on, what does that mean for someone's chances of beating cancer?

Right now, 1 in 2 patients will die in five years so it's a deadly disease. If caught early...the chance for easier treatment increases. Early detection is the key to really improve a better outcome.

We promote that patients over 80 should have a regular check up for the disease with their family doctor.

This interview was edited and condensed. To hear the full interview, click the audio labelled: New test hopes to catch difficult to catch oral cancer.