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  • Posted April 18, 2024

Urine Test Might Spot Head-and-Neck Cancers Early

A newly developed at-home urine test could potentially help doctors catch head and neck cancers earlier, a new study suggests.

The test looks for tiny DNA fragments sloughed off by tumor cells, which pass from the bloodstream into urine through the kidneys, researchers said.

These fragments are too small to be caught by current urine or blood tests that look for cancer DNA circulating in the body, researchers reported recently in the journal JCI Insight.

"Conventional assays do not detect ultrashort fragments found in urine, since they are designed to target longer DNA fragments,"explained lead researcher Chandan Bhambhani, a research lab specialist with the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center.

Early detection of head and neck cancers is critical because tumors are easier to treat and potentially cure when they're at an early stage, researchers noted.

Using genetic analysis, researchers showed that the DNA fragments released by head and neck cancers are very short, and thus likely to be overlooked by current tests.

The researchers then created a mail-in urine test that would detect these fragments. The test has been distributed for research purposes to patients located relatively near the University of Michigan. 

"One of the most remarkable outcomes of this study is that the test that has been developed has detected cancer recurrences far earlier than would typically happen based on clinical imaging,"said co-senior study author Chad Brenner, an associate professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the University of Michigan.

"As such, these promising results have given us the confidence to broaden the scope of the study, seeking to expanding distribution even further,"Brenner added in a university news release.

The test also can be tweaked to look for small DNA fragments from other cancers as well, like leukemia and breast cancer, the researchers added.

"Many people are not aware that urine carries information about many different cancer types, although it is made in the kidneys,"Bhambhani said. 

Urine tests are also easier for patients to gather themselves and send in for analysis, compared to blood tests, Bhambhani added.

More information

The National Cancer Institute has more on head and neck cancers.

SOURCE: University of Michigan, news release, April 16, 2024.

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