Oral cancer under the blue spotlight: Dr. Catherine Poh

Oral cancer symptoms can be identified and treated more quickly thanks to efforts by UBC’s Catherine Poh

Lydia Gnoato Chong knows first hand why oral cancer is often referred to as a silent killer.

Nearly 10 years ago, Chong noticed a small sore on her tongue. “It was there for a year,” she recalls. “It would get better, then it would bother me longer and longer as time went by.

Finally Chong’s boss urged her to see an oral surgeon and a biopsy revealed the lesion was an early cancer.

Like most cancers, early detection and intervention saves lives, but lesions can be difficult to detect, even for health care professionals, and warning signs of oral cancer are often caught far too late.

Dr. Catherine Poh uses a hand-held blue light device that can detect malignant lesions.

Dr. Catherine Poh uses a hand-held blue light device that can detect malignant lesions.

To address this, Dr. Catherine Poh, an associate professor in UBC’s Faculty of Dentistry and clinician scientist at BC Cancer Agency Research Centre, has developed a screening protocol using a simple hand-held blue light device that can detect malignant lesions.

The device, which uses a technology called florescence visualization, makes healthy tissues appear florescent while potentially malignant lesions appear dark, helping dentists catch lesions routine check-ups miss.

No more ‘wait and see’

The tool is an important new way for professionals to spot possible cancers and it can also provide immediate information for worried patients.

“It will give doctors a better indication which patients require immediate treatment while giving peace of mind to low-risk patients,” says Poh.

Chong, who doesn’t drink or smoke and has no family history of oral cancer, said the time waiting for biopsy results was nearly unbearable.

Dr. Catherine Poh

Dr. Catherine Poh

“You know the worst-case scenario so every minute adds to the anxiety,” she says.

In addition to creating stress in patients, the current “wait and see” approach, which involves having all patients with lesions return for checkups every six months, can miss the 15 percent of patients whose lesions progress to cancer in three years.

“Patients are told they may be living with cancer but can’t do anything about it,” says Poh, who is leading a Genome BC-funded project to develop a new test targeting a set of genes associated with high-risk cancer progression1, 2.

Blue spotlight on surgery

For those requiring surgery, blue light technology could give surgeons a better look at the extent of the lesion for removal.

Poh is also one of the lead investigators of a national clinical trial (COOLS) funded by the Terry Fox Research Institute3 to assess the effectiveness of integrating it into oral cancer surgery.

[The Canadian Optically-guided approach for Oral Lesions Surgical (COOLS) trial4 is a multi-site clinical trial using fluorescence visualization in the operating room to better define the margins of oral cancers at the time of resection. This has decreased the recurrence rate from about 30 percent to less than 5 percent which is a major improvement in clinical care.]

Chong, who has been cancer-free since her surgery where Poh used blue light to assist with malignant tissue removal, says the experience has made her more vigilant with her clients.

“I’m a dental assistant and I should know better,” says Chong. “But I kept putting off getting it checked. It’s just stress, I thought.

“Time isn’t on your side when it comes to oral cancer.”

Further reading: references

1 A ten-year longitudinal study by UBC Dentistry faculty could boost oral cancer detection
December 1, 2012
UBC Dentistry professors Drs. Lewei Zhang, Catherine Poh, Michele Williams and Denise Laronde have taken a giant step closer to understanding the complex stages involved in malignant transformation.

2 BC detection test being used to catch oral cancer in early stages
August 4, 2015
Dr. Catherine Poh, oral pathologist and associate professor in Dentistry, spoke with the CBC’s Early Edition about the latest developments.

3 Terry Fox Research Institute Awards $5M to Dr. Catherine Poh
March 1, 2011
The Terry Fox Research Institute (TFRI) has awarded Dentistry associate professor Dr. Catherine Poh and members of the BC Oral Cancer Prevention Program team a $5 million grant…

4 Poh CF, Durham JS, Brasher PM, Anderson DW, Berean KW, MacAulay CE, Lee JJ and Rosin MP. (2011) Canadian Optically-guided approach for Oral Lesions Surgical (COOLS) trial: study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. BMC Cancer, 11(462), doi:10.1186/1471-2407-11-462.

Further reading: articles

Reaching Out To Combat Oral Cancer
March 21, 2011
UBC’s Faculty of Dentistry clinicians, researchers and colleagues from across BC are leading the fight against oral cancer by bringing innovative diagnostic tools into communities most at risk.

Further reading: events

Research Day 2016
Oral Cancer: The Journey From Early Detection to Survivorship
Research Day 2016 will highlight the work of local researchers from the UBC Faculty of Dentistry and the BC Cancer Agency in discovering new techniques to prevent, detect, triage and treat oral cancer to improve long-term outcomes for patients with oral cancer or precancer.

Research Day 2009
Oral Cancer: Early Detection Saves Lives
Research Day 2009 speakers will focus on the basic research of premalignant lesions and oral cancer and the progression of these findings into clinical applications that benefit patients.

Biography and contact

Catherine Poh, DDS, PhD, FRCD (C)
Associate Professor
Biography and contact details