Canadian cancer specialists are excited about a nationwide clinical trial that will test a new approach to spotting and removing oral tumours.

During the study, oral surgeons will use a Canadian-developed fluorescence visualization (FV), or "blue light," to identify cancerous tissue in the mouth that needs removal.

Using traditional white light, it's hard to spot oral cancer. But under the blue light, normal tissue generates a fluorescence, while oral squamous cell cancers or pre-cancerous cells go dark.

The hand-held blue light tool developed at the B.C. Cancer Agency has already been shown in smaller studies to help prevent oral cancer recurrence by detecting previously unrecognized cancer cells.

In this new trial, researchers will assess the efficacy of the tool on 400 eligible patients across Canada over five years.

The Phase III trial is dubbed the Canadian Optically Guided Approach for Oral Lesions Surgical Trial (COOLS Study) and is being conducted at nine cities across Canada.

Often, oral surgeons can't easily see all of the cancerous tissue in the initial operation and therefore can't get it all. It's hoped this study will show that the blue light device helps with finding high-risk, pre-cancerous tissue that might otherwise go undetected.

"The beauty of the FV or "blue light" is that it is an incredibly simple concept: it is not invasive or painful, and the technology is relatively easy to use," Dr. Karen Kost, director of the MUHC Voice and Dysphagia Laboratory, and one of the investigators working on the study, said in a news release.

About 3,400 Canadians are diagnosed with oral cancer annually, and while the disease isn't common, it can be deadly. In 2010, about 1,150 people died from oral cancer.

The disease has a high death rate in part because almost one in three patients who has surgery to remove oral cancer has the disease reoccur. If the cancer spreads to the neck, lymph nodes, and throat, it becomes difficult to treat.

The study has the backing of the Terry Fox Research Institute, which is helping to pay for the $4.7 million trial

"This study will have an immediate impact on practice if the study turns out the way we hope," says study investigator Dr. Miriam Rosin, a senior scientist with the B.C. Cancer Agency.

"If the study is successful, it will help to reduce the number of deaths from oral cancer as well as to improve the quality of life for people living with this disease."

Oral cancer can form in any part of the mouth but often begins in the tongue. The disease affects all age groups but is most often diagnosed in those over age 40 who smoke, chew tobacco, and/or are heavy drinkers.

Symptoms include:

  • white patches anywhere inside the mouth
  • sores in the mouth that won't heal
  • loose teeth
  • difficulty or pain when swallowing