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Diagnosing oral cancer with less pain and easier recovery

Staying ahead of cancer requires new tools and technology. A group of Richard and Loan Hill Department of Bioengineering students hopes to add another weapon to the arsenal to detect oral cancer.

Seniors Anupriya Mathews, Ali Abumunshar, Isaac Antuna, Jenipher Flores Martinez, and Eron Mendenhall designed an oral brush that can collect cells from the mouth of patients who may have oral cancer. The current diagnostic gold standard is a biopsy that removes some tissue from the patient’s mouth, but this process is not ideal because it involves recovery time and is expensive.

To develop a less invasive, more cost-effective solution, the team is working with Joel Schwartz, professor of oral medicine and diagnostic sciences in UIC’s College of Dentistry. Mathews said Schwartz’s clinic already is using a specimen-collection brush, but it is uncomfortable and can potentially cause bleeding when used on lesions due to its twisted-in-wire design.

For their 2021 UIC Engineering Expo design project, the students wanted to make a brush that is more comfortable and reduces bleeding — a tough challenge because the brush still needs to be able to remove cells that can be tested for oral cancer.

Creating a prototype presented a challenge of its own. The students could not 3D-print their design in the UIC Makerspace, so they had to persuade an outside company to print a single brush, not a large batch like they are used to for most orders. Then they had to find a manufacturer who could handle the proposed product.

Mendenhall said the design of their brush bristles, which are very thin, presented the biggest hangup. “These manufacturers had a required minimum 1-millimeter thickness,” he explained. “This was an issue for us, as we needed small bristles to collect cells from small legions.”

The group overcame the problem by redesigning the brush in a way that manufacturers could create it and that it still could effectively collect cells.

“We wanted to be part of a project that addressed a clinical need and wanted to contribute to something that could impact human lives,” Mathews said. “We are proud of where we have come and hope to develop the brush even more.”