Dentist Allan Melnick DDS Sees Saliva as Promising Way to Detect Cancer

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Prominent Encino doctor believes testing salivary proteins during routine office visits may be the best method to screen patients for deadly pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is a nasty disease

Pancreatic cancer is a deadly disease and has taken the lives of notables such as Luciano Pavarotti, Patrick Swayze and Michael Landon in recent years, as well touched the lives of millions of others. Detection and treatment are difficult, so news of the discovery of certain proteins in human saliva is worth celebrating, says Dr. Allan Melnick, an Encino, Calif., clinical dentist and former UCLA dentistry professor.

“Pancreatic cancer is a nasty disease,” says Melnick. “It’s aggressive so early detection is vital. Researchers at UCLA have just identified protein markers for this cancer in human saliva, which is like finding a hikeable passage through rugged mountains. They offer hope of a promising diagnostic tool – one that could be administered chairside in the local dentist’s office.”

School of Dentistry researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles isolated four salivary protein markers that would greatly improve screenings for the disease. Pancreatic cancer is so aggressive and usually found in late stages that by the time symptoms become apparent the cancer has often spread, according to the American Cancer Society.

Working in conjunction with the School of Dentistry were scientists from the University’s David Geffen School of Medicine, the UCLA School of Public Health and the Johnson Comprehensive Cancer Center. The study funded by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research and the National Cancer Institute involved 90 human subjects: 30 with cancer, 30 with chronic pancreatitis and 30 with no apparent health issues.

Until recently, the only way to detect pancreatic cancer were costly imaging tests such as Computerized Axial Tomography (CAT scan), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET scan). Sometimes more invasive techniques such as biopsies, blood tests and endoscopic procedures that involve x-rays, dyes, intravenous catheters and tubes pushed down the throat and into the stomach or small intestine are necessary.

“Being able to take a saliva sample from a patient is so much easier and cost-effective than one of the more involved screening devices – and totally noninvasive,” said Melnick. “It would not be intimidating like being placed in a CAT scan machine or as scary as having a tube shoved down your throat. It would be so simple. I applaud my colleagues at UCLA and look forward to the day I can implement this molecularly based tool in my office.”

The American Cancer Society’s 2010 statistics estimate that the United States will see 43,140 new cases of pancreatic cancer by the end of the year and about 36,800 deaths. The chances of developing pancreatic cancer are about 1 in 71. It’s an equal opportunity affliction, affecting men and women at about the same rate, and is the fourth-leading cause of cancer death in the country.

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