Raising awareness critical to lowering head and neck cancer rates

Dr Nham Tran (Supplied)

Dr Nham Tran (Supplied)

In summary: 
  • UTS researchers develop a low cost, easy-to-administer blood test for early stage head and neck cancer
  • Raising awareness about this disease will save lives

Despite being the sixth most common type of cancer in the world, with 500,000 new diagnoses and 200,000 deaths every year, there is very little public awareness about head and neck cancer and its poor prognosis if caught too late.

Dr Nham Tran and PhD student Samantha Khoury from UTS's Centre for Health Technologies are hoping to change that.

For the last decade Dr Nham Tran has been investigating how specific molecular markers can indicate the early onset or presence of head and neck cancer. In 2014, his research team, driven by PhD student Samantha Khoury, unveiled a simple, early blood-based diagnostic test called miLIFE™ that looks at the profile of small molecules called microRNA and can reveal the early signs of cancer.

“The majority of head and neck cancer patients present at an advanced stage so the cancer has already spread to other parts of the body making treatment very difficult,” Dr Tran says. “Early diagnosis reduces the need for surgery and vastly improves the patient’s chances of survival.”

Sue Suchy has survived oral cancer three times and is a key member of Dr Tran’s research team providing them with advice and direction from her unique perspective as the consumer. “Nham asks my opinion on a variety of things. Sometimes there are documents he wants me to look at in terms of plain English and whether they're comprehensible to a lay person,” Sue says. “Much of the time science is done in a vacuum and there is no real thought given to the patient experience. You’re treated as the cancer rather than the patient so my job is to help them improve things in a way that's more humane and personalised.”

The blood test, the first of its kind anywhere in the world, can be easily administered by a patient’s GP and if results indicate a high risk, the patient can be referred to a specialist.

UTS issued a patent for the miLIFE™ technology in June and Dr Tran aims to bring it to market within 24 months. He wants to coordinate a head and neck cancer drop in clinic at UTS run by surgical fellows at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, with whom he has close connection, and is also ready to advocate for a federal screening programme that targets people at high risk. “It would be great for GPs to be able to recognise a high risk patient and say, ‘let’s test you for oral cancer as well,’ and tick a box for miLIFE™.”

For Dr Tran and Ms Khoury the issue of raising awareness is just as important as developing the early diagnostic blood test so this year they decided to link up with the International Federation of Head and Neck Oncology Societies (IFHNOS) to run an active advocacy event on Monday 3 August to mark the inaugural declaration of World Head and Neck Cancer Day held on July 27, 2015.

The event:

Title: Raising awareness for World Head and Neck Cancer Day, 2015

Date: Monday 3 August, 2015

Time: 5:30 - 7:00pm

Location: Foyer area, Building 11. Jones Street, Ultimo

With presentations by:

  • Dr Joel Smith, SHNCI Fellow and Surgeon: Head and neck cancer diagnosis
  • Dr Nham Tran: Head and neck cancer research at UTS
  • Presenter TBA: Head and neck cancer: growing trends

RSVP via email to Samantha Khoury 

Note: Head and neck cancer symptoms include: red or white patches around the mouth, difficulty swallowing or pronouncing certain words, and any lumps around the mouth area. If any of these affect you, please visit your GP.