Oral and throat cancers can be life-threatening, and their frequency seems to be increasing. Now, two tests that are simple, painless and noninvasive can often detect them at very early stages when they can often be treated successfully. Both were developed here in South Florida.
When Dr. Elizabeth Franzmann was working at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, she got tired of losing patients because their diagnoses often came too late. “I was frustrated, because the patients came in at very late stages,” says Dr. Franzmann, now a head and neck surgeon at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and chief scientific officer at Fort Lauderdale-based Vigilant Biosciences. “These cancers can masquerade as other, more benign conditions like a canker sore or infection, or they can be hidden for a long time.”
Risk factors for oral and throat cancers include smoking, excessive alcohol use, and exposure to certain strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV). More than half are detected at stage three or four, when five-year survival rates are only about 50 percent, according to Vigilant Biosciences. But if the diseases are caught early, treatment can be 80 to 90 percent effective.
In Search of Early Detection
The results of Dr. Franzmann’s more than 15 years of study are now two rinse-and-spit tests. The first identifies the presence of biomarkers that indicate the possible presence of an oral cancer. It is performed in a doctor or dentist’s office, and the results can be read in 20 minutes. It is effective in ruling out oral and throat cancers when there is reasonable doubt about their presence.
The second incorporates biomarker levels with clinical variables to help discriminate between malignancies and benign conditions. It is also performed in the clinician’s office, but is sent to a lab for reading.
From Research To Market
Serendipity helped transform Dr. Franzmann’s academic research into easy-to-administer tests.
Matthew Kim, an attorney, was searching the Internet for information on oral cancer that might help his mother, who was battling the disease for the third time. “I felt helpless watching her struggle,” he recalls.
When he discovered the results of Dr. Franzmann’s studies, he wondered if they might help keep other people from the kind of suffering his mother was experiencing. In 2011, he secured a license to the research from the University of Miami and founded Vigilant Biosciences. Dr. Franzmann joined him as co-founder.
Within a few years, the firm had developed the two current tests: the OncAlert Oral Cancer RAPID test, and the Oncalert Oral Cancer LAB test. They are currently in use in Europe, the Caribbean, New Zealand and South Africa, and Dr. Franzmann and Kim hope for FDA approval for marketing them in the United States by sometime next year.