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Salivary diagnostics research nets grant

September 02, 2013

By Jean Williams, ADA News staff

Los Angeles—The National Institutes of Health has granted $5 million to the University of California Los Angeles School of Dentistry to develop biological markers in saliva as a means of ultimately developing tests to detect stomach cancer and other systemic diseases.

The NIH Common Fund, established to transcend barriers in biomedical research and lead to improved human health, made the award to UCLA from its Extracellular RNA Communication initiative, which specifically targets the emerging field of salivary diagnostics.

“This is the first time that NIH is funding saliva markers for systemic disease detection,” said Dr. David Wong, a pioneer in salivary diagnostics and the dental school's associate dean of research, who will lead a UCLA team in the research. “That has important underlying implications. They've said, 'Saliva can be used for oral disease detection. Great. But if saliva can be used to detect non-oral disease, systemic disease, that really puts it in a different place in terms of clinical impact.'“

Dr. Wong, formerly a member of the ADA Council on Scientific Affairs, and his team will seek to develop a salivary biomarker panel that would definitively detect and help assess a patient's risk for stomach cancer. They will attempt to capture exRNA biomarkers secreted by stomach cancer cells found in saliva samples. Their five-year study could help usher in a new era in which salivary diagnostics is regarded as diagnostically as relevant as blood in detecting systemic diseases.

“It's gratifying from a scientific perspective,” Dr. Wong said. “It's a very good moment in dentistry and oral health research.”

With collaborators, Dr. Wong discovered salivary exRNA molecules in 2004 and demonstrated their utility for detecting oral cancer, the school said. They developed salivary exRNA biomarkers for oral and systemic diseases that include salivary gland tumors, other cancers and Sjögren's syndrome, the school said.

Dr. Wong's UCLA collaborators are David Chia, Ph.D., professor in the department of pathology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA; David Elashoff, Ph.D., a professor in the department of biostatistics at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health; and Yong Kim, Ph.D., an associate professor in the division of oral biology and medicine at the UCLA School of Dentistry. They will also collaborate with Sung Kim, M.D., executive vice president and director of gastric cancer at the Samsung Medical Center in Seoul, South Korea.

A high rate of gastric cancer in South Korea and the fact that adults over 45 get free endoscope exams every two years to look for the disease led to the UCLA team's collaboration with Dr. Sung Kim in Seoul. The team will investigate whether salivary diagnostics can replace the invasive endoscope exams.

The ADA has resources on salivary diagnostics at For fundamental information, download A Primer on Salivary Diagnostics. Search salivary diagnostics on for other resources.