Health Scan: Simple blood test helps warn of head and neck cancer

A simple blood test may be able to identify those most at risk for developing head and neck cancer as a result of smoking.

blood test 88 (photo credit: )
blood test 88
(photo credit: )
A simple blood test may be able to identify those most at risk for developing head and neck cancer as a result of smoking. This was the finding of a recent study by Prof. Zvi Livneh, director of the Weizmann Institute of Science's Biological Chemistry Department, Dr. Tamar Paz-Elizur and colleagues from Tel Aviv-Sourasky Medical Center, Sheba Medical Center and Ben-Gurion University. In their study, which appeared in Cancer Research, the scientists asked whether a reduced individual ability (meaning non-inherited) to repair DNA damage increases chances of getting head and neck cancer. Smoking damages DNA and is known to be a major cause of this disease, which can affect the throat, mouth and larynx. The researchers focused on a DNA repair enzyme called OGG1, for which they had previously developed a blood test to measure activity levels. By comparing OGG activity in healthy people with that in head and neck cancer patients, the research team found the test was able to single out those with an increased risk of this type of cancer: Weak levels were correlated with greater risk. According to Livneh, a smoker with low OGG activity is 70 times more likely to develop head and neck cancer than a non-smoker with normal OGG levels. Livneh's research deals with repair mechanisms for DNA, the material of genes. Cells maintain sophisticated repair systems to prevent the accumulation of mutations that might lead to cancer. In these systems, molecular detectors scan the DNA for injury. A sort of local operation is then performed to cut out and dispose of a damaged segment and replace it with a new one. These findings join a previous study by the group in which they found that low OGG activity is an indicator of elevated risk for lung cancer - another disease caused by smoking. Together, these studies show that a combination of low OGG activity and smoking can greatly magnify a smoker's chances of developing cancer. Also participating in the study were Dalia Elinger of the Biological Chemistry Department, Dr. Akiva Vexler of Tel Aviv-Sourasky Medical Center, Profs. Adi Shani and Alain Berrebi of Kaplan Medical Center, and Dr. Meir Krupsky of Sheba Medical Center. The OGG blood test might be used, in the future, to identify those most at risk for lung, head and neck cancers, hopefully giving added incentive to those individuals to quit smoking. In addition, drugs might be developed to reduce this risk, similar to those prescribed today to reduce the risk of heart disease. TAU DENTAL SCHOOL GETS REPRIEVE Tel Aviv University's dental school, whose continued functioning has been put in doubt because of high costs, has received another chance. University management says it has found a way to keep it open. The school has an annual deficit of NIS 15 million, which has been covered by the general university budget. It has been agreed to drastically cut the dental school's budget and increase its income. In addition, the Council for Higher Education's powerful planning and budgeting committee will allocate an undisclosed amount of money to keep the school going. Education Minister Yuli Tamir, who is chairman of the Council for Higher Education, said that since entering her post she has put high priority on saving the dental school, which is one of only two in the country (the other one, and the first, is that of the Hebrew University-Hadassah in Jerusalem). TAU president Itamar Rabinovich welcomed the solution to the crisis and praised dental school dean Haim Tal for his "pragmatism." ANOTHER USE FOR BOTOX "Botox," the popular anti-wrinkle treatment that is also used for excessive sweating and facial tics, can also ease writer's cramp, suggests a small study published ahead of print in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. Writer's cramp is the painful involuntary, spasmodic muscle contractions of the fingers, hand or arm during writing. But it can also occur during other manual tasks. Some people learn to write with their other hand, but in one in four cases, the condition affects both hands, and it's difficult to treat. It affects around three to seven in every 100,000 people. Relaxation techniques, hypnosis, biofeedback, acupuncture and "writing reeducation exercises" have all been used, but none of these brings continued relief, and there is as yet no effective drug treatment. Forty people with writer's cramp were randomly assigned to a course of injections containing either botulinum toxin (Botox) or a placebo in two doses, usually into two muscles, over a period of 12 weeks. Of the 20 people given botox treatment, 14 (70 percent) said their condition had significantly improved, and they wished to continue treatment. Their improvement was confirmed using validated disability and pain scales. Only six of the 19 people in the placebo group felt that their condition had improved, and one person dropped out of the trial. After a year, half of the trial participants were still receiving botox injections, and were finding them helpful. Side effects included mild and temporary muscle weakness and pain at the injection site. Symptom relief lasted from three to 18 months, with an average symptom-free period of four-and-a-half months.