A research team has published a paper detailing a more accurate test for cervical cancer that could help private oncology clinics and hospitals diagnose patients earlier, which is one of the most important factors for the success of medical interventions.
The study, published in Genome Medicine, outlines a study by UCL and the University of Innsbruck on over a thousand women of a test that picks up DNA markers that signpost potential cell changes in the next four years.
The team had shown its potential use in spotting ovarian and breast cancer, but when used to test for cervical cancer, it found that the test performed better than currently used testing methods for smears.
Previously, the primary way in which cervical cancer was screened was by testing for human papillomavirus (HPV), one of the primary causes of cervical cancer, as well as several other cancers and health conditions such as warts or verrucas.
However, with a widespread vaccination programme widely implemented in the UK that has vastly reduced the number of HPV cases, cytology screening tests more focused on current and potential future cell changes are key to ensuring potential cancers are diagnosed and treated as early as possible.
The HPV vaccination fundamentally changed the rates of cervical cancer, with a study funded by Cancer Research UK finding that cervical cancer rates had reduced by 87 per cent in women who were first offered the vaccine when they were 12 and 13 years old (now in their mid-20s).
This dramatic change, much higher than even the study’s sponsor expected, has led to suggestions that there could be a fundamental change in smear test screening programmes from every five years to potentially twice in a lifetime.
This has, consequentially, potentially created a need for different screening methods for detecting cervical cancer in a world where people have fewer smear tests in their lives.
The team’s primary method focuses on DNA methylation, a process where cells read parts of DNA that do not change the DNA sequence, which is part of many natural processes but also is part of the process of cells becoming cancerous.
These factors can be affected by carcinogenic factors such as pollution or smoking, which in turn change how the cell behaves.
By looking into methylations, the team are closer to predicting the risk of people developing cancer as well as if they already have cancers that have not been detected via other methods.
The new method is specific in its approach, which not only improves accuracy but avoids the risk of over-treatment in cases where such an intense, invasive approach is unnecessary and causes more harm than good.
As well as this, rather than requiring multiple tests, the pap smear can be used to test three major cancers as opposed to requiring separate tests for ovarian and breast cancers, although other specific tests will be undertaken if there are any concerns.
The next step will be to expand the test beyond the 1254 women tested and see how effective the test is in a real-world scenario to ensure that the unprecedented success seen so far will continue at a larger scale.