Ongoing research at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) suggests that a simple saliva test may be able to diagnose such serious illnesses as cancer, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and neurological disorders during their early stages. This will potentially improve treatment outcomes and possibly lead to self-diagnostic tools.

“If you don’t look in saliva, you may miss important indicators of disease,” said Dr. David Wong, a senior author of the research and UCLA’s Felix and Mildred Yip Endowed Professor in Dentistry. “There seems to be treasure in saliva, which will surprise people.”

According to the research, saliva contains many of the disease-indicative molecules commonly tested for in blood.

“If we can define the boundaries of molecular targets in saliva, then we can ask what the constituents in saliva are that can mark someone who has pre-diabetes or the early stages of oral cancer or pancreatic cancer — and we can utilize this knowledge for personalized medicine,” said Wong.

For the past decade, Wong studied biomarkers in saliva and recently discovered that RNA, an essential molecule for protein creation in cells, is also contained in saliva and can be used to detect disease.

Wong and the other UCLA scientists also found more than 400 circular forms of RNA in saliva, of which over 300 were previously unknown. The circular form itself was only recently discovered, while the linear form is well-known.

While researchers do not completely understand circular RNA’s function in saliva, they did find that small microRNA particles bind to it.

“Circular RNAs in saliva may be protecting other RNAs,” said Xinshu (Grace) Xiao, the paper’s other senior author and a UCLA associate professor of integrative biology and physiology.

The scientists also found that the microRNA levels in saliva are very similar to those in other body fluids such as blood, indicating that saliva would be a very good measure for microRNA.

This remarkable discovery could allow dentists to take saliva samples and test for a wide range of serious illnesses. Patients may even soon have access to accurate self-diagnostic devices.

“This could indicate that wearable gear that informs you whether you have a disease — even before you have any symptoms — is almost here,” said Wong.

Besides writing, R. McKinley loves reading (especially historical fiction and science books), playing piano and flute, being involved in politics and community, working out, enjoying nature, and hanging out with four wonderful cats.