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"Cheek Check" -- The Discovery Files

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Engineers and physicians from NorthShore University Health System have developed a method to detect lung cancer by merely shining diffuse light on cells swabbed from patients' cheeks. In their study, the analysis technique was able to differentiate individuals with lung cancer from those without.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Shedding New Light on Cancer Detection.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

One of the most deadly cancers in the U.S. is lung cancer, in its early stages, notoriously difficult to detect. Better methods of early detection could mean higher survival rates. Now a team of doctors and engineers from Northshore University Health System, and Northwestern and New York Universities has developed a quick, easy, non-invasive means of detection using a simple cheek swab, and light.

According to the team, when lung cancer is present in the body there is a field effect. In other words, healthy cells far from the tumor undergo minute changes in cell structure. By swabbing healthy cells in the mouth and shining diffuse light on them, researchers are able to reveal these changes that indicate the presence of cancer in another area.

The technique detects alterations so small that the cells appear normal under conventional testing. The same tiny changes in cell structure develop in other types of cancer as well. Previous trials successfully spotted pancreatic and colon cancers by looking at cells far from the tumor sites. In the lung cancer trials, the technique was able to differentiate lung cancer patients from those without lung cancer even if other chronic lung conditions were present.

A swab of tattletale healthy cells, that when put under the light, give up their cancerous cohorts. One day we may all go in for a diagnostic "cheek-up."

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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