Diagnostic tests for oral cancer and potentially malignant disorders in patients presenting with clinically evident lesions

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2021 Jul 20;7(7):CD010276. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD010276.pub3.


Background: Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common form of malignancy of the oral cavity, and is often proceeded by oral potentially malignant disorders (OPMD). Early detection of oral cavity squamous cell carcinoma (oral cancer) can improve survival rates. The current diagnostic standard of surgical biopsy with histology is painful for patients and involves a delay in order to process the tissue and render a histological diagnosis; other diagnostic tests are available that are less invasive and some are able to provide immediate results. This is an update of a Cochrane Review first published in 2015.

Objectives: Primary objective: to estimate the diagnostic accuracy of index tests for the detection of oral cancer and OPMD, in people presenting with clinically evident suspicious and innocuous lesions.

Secondary objective: to estimate the relative accuracy of the different index tests.

Search methods: Cochrane Oral Health's Information Specialist searched the following databases: MEDLINE Ovid (1946 to 20 October 2020), and Embase Ovid (1980 to 20 October 2020). The US National Institutes of Health Ongoing Trials Register (ClinicalTrials.gov) and the World Health Organization International Clinical Trials Registry Platform were also searched for ongoing trials to 20 October 2020. No restrictions were placed on the language or date of publication when searching the electronic databases. We conducted citation searches, and screened reference lists of included studies for additional references.

Selection criteria: We selected studies that reported the diagnostic test accuracy of the following index tests when used as an adjunct to conventional oral examination in detecting OPMD or oral cavity squamous cell carcinoma: vital staining (a dye to stain oral mucosa tissues), oral cytology, light-based detection and oral spectroscopy, blood or saliva analysis (which test for the presence of biomarkers in blood or saliva).

Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently screened titles and abstracts for relevance. Eligibility, data extraction and quality assessment were carried out by at least two authors, independently and in duplicate. Studies were assessed for methodological quality using the Quality Assessment of Diagnostic Accuracy Studies 2 (QUADAS-2). Meta-analysis was used to combine the results of studies for each index test using the bivariate approach to estimate the expected values of sensitivity and specificity.

Main results: This update included 63 studies (79 datasets) published between 1980 and 2020 evaluating 7942 lesions for the quantitative meta-analysis. These studies evaluated the diagnostic accuracy of conventional oral examination with: vital staining (22 datasets), oral cytology (24 datasets), light-based detection or oral spectroscopy (24 datasets). Nine datasets assessed two combined index tests. There were no eligible diagnostic accuracy studies evaluating blood or salivary sample analysis. Two studies were classed as being at low risk of bias across all domains, and 33 studies were at low concern for applicability across the three domains, where patient selection, the index test, and the reference standard used were generalisable across the population attending secondary care. The summary estimates obtained from the meta-analysis were: - vital staining: sensitivity 0.86 (95% confidence interval (CI) 0.79 to 0.90) specificity 0.68 (95% CI 0.58 to 0.77), 20 studies, sensitivity low-certainty evidence, specificity very low-certainty evidence; - oral cytology: sensitivity 0.90 (95% CI 0.82 to 0.94) specificity 0.94 (95% CI 0.88 to 0.97), 20 studies, sensitivity moderate-certainty evidence, specificity moderate-certainty evidence; - light-based: sensitivity 0.87 (95% CI 0.78 to 0.93) specificity 0.50 (95% CI 0.32 to 0.68), 23 studies, sensitivity low-certainty evidence, specificity very low-certainty evidence; and - combined tests: sensitivity 0.78 (95% CI 0.45 to 0.94) specificity 0.71 (95% CI 0.53 to 0.84), 9 studies, sensitivity very low-certainty evidence, specificity very low-certainty evidence.

Authors' conclusions: At present none of the adjunctive tests can be recommended as a replacement for the currently used standard of a surgical biopsy and histological assessment. Given the relatively high values of the summary estimates of sensitivity and specificity for oral cytology, this would appear to offer the most potential. Combined adjunctive tests involving cytology warrant further investigation. Potentially eligible studies of blood and salivary biomarkers were excluded from the review as they were of a case-control design and therefore ineligible. In the absence of substantial improvement in the tests evaluated in this updated review, further research into biomarkers may be warranted.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Bias
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / analysis
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / blood
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / diagnosis*
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / pathology
  • Coloring Agents
  • Early Detection of Cancer
  • Humans
  • Light
  • Lip Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Lip Neoplasms / pathology
  • Mouth / pathology
  • Mouth Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Mouth Neoplasms / pathology
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Sensitivity and Specificity


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Coloring Agents