Scientists at Johns Hopkins University are working on a simple, inexpensive test to identify people who may have cancers of the head and neck. Early identification of these cancers could save lives especially on the Indian subcontinent, where they are the leading cause of cancer death. VOA's Art Chimes reports.

Cancers of the head and neck ? including mouth and throat cancers ? are especially common among smokers and older people. In the United States, it's the seventh leading cause of cancer death.

"Worldwide, though, it is actually more common," says Dr. Joseph Califano of the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore.

"It's actually the sixth most common cancer, and it is actually the most common cancer in India. It is actually the single worst cancer killer in the Indian subcontinent as well. In India it's actually those who smoke tobacco and actually use betel or betel quid or paan or areca nut derivatives with tobacco."

Califano is one of the scientists developing a so-called "swish and spit" test to identify cancerous cells.

"For patients it's really very simple. All it is involves taking a brush to brush the surfaces of the mouth and throat, and then gargle, rinse, swish and spit. And just that simple act provides an enormous amount of cells that are shed essentially constantly from the throat and the mouth."

Those may include cells from cancers in the throat and mouth that can be identified by genetic screening. Swishing and spitting may be simple, but figuring out what genes to look for in these cells is a challenge.

"What we really need to do is find the right combination of markers that will be specific enough so that we detect enough cancers but don't catch in the net, so to speak, normal people who would undergo a needless confirmatory physical examination," he said in a telephone interview.

In new research, Califano and his colleagues report on their progress in finding those elusive genetic markers.

This sort of screening is most useful for testing groups at greater risk for head and neck cancers.

"If we limited our test to those who are older than 50 and are heavy smokers and drinkers, these tests would probably be very effective. Or, for example, say we employ these tests on populations in India, it would also be very effective because the prevalence of the disease is so high.

He says the first real world use of this screening for head and neck cancers will be with people who have already had the disease. They are at very high risk of developing cancer again.

Joseph Califano says early detection of these mouth and throat cancers could make a big difference in survival rates.

"It's actually incredibly important. In an early stage we can cure about 90 percent of these head and neck cancers. And in later stages, cure rates are as low as 30 to 40 percent. So early diagnosis really is the key towards curing head and neck cancer."

Johns Hopkins medical researcher Joseph Califano published his findings in the new issue of the journal "Clinical Cancer Research."