Oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC) is often diagnosed at a late stage and may be malignantly transformed from oral leukoplakia (OL). This study aimed to identify potential plasma microRNAs (miRNAs) for the early detection of oral cancer. Plasma from normal, OL, and OSCC patients were evaluated. Small RNA sequencing was used to screen the differently expressed miRNAs among the groups. Next, these miRNAs were validated with individual samples by quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR) assays in the training phase (n = 72) and validation phase (n = 178). The possible physiological roles of the identified miRNAs were further investigated using bioinformatics analysis. Three miRNAs (miR-222-3p, miR-150-5p, and miR-423-5p) were identified as differentially expressed among groups; miR-222-3p and miR-423-5p negatively correlated with T stage, lymph node metastasis status, and clinical stage. A high diagnostic accuracy (Area under curve = 0.88) was demonstrated for discriminating OL from OSCC. Bioinformatics analysis reveals that miR-423-5p and miR-222-3p are significantly over-expressed in oral cancer tissues and involved in various cancer pathways. The three-plasma miRNA panel may be useful to monitor malignant progression from OL to OSCC and as potential biomarkers for early detection of oral cancer.
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