An alternative to smear tests could soon revolutionise the way doctors diagnose cervical cancer, with scientists hoping it will reduce the number of women missing their check-ups.
Scientists say the new method, which could see women using a home urine or swab test instead of visiting the doctor’s surgery, could potentially help more women discover whether they are at risk of cervical cancer.
Researchers at Queen Mary University of London have developed the test, which will identify pre-cancer lesions by analysing samples that can be collected by women in the comfort of their own home.
Dr Belinda Nedjai and colleagues have developed an alternative screening method that does not rely on smear tests, and presented their research at the National Cancer Research Institute conference in Glasgow.
As part of the trial, scientists at the university asked 600 women to provide self-collected samples for screening. The study, which tested for the S5 methylation classifier, measured chemical changes detectable in urine or self-collected vaginal fluid samples to gauge a woman’s cancer risk. A high score suggests there is an increased risk of a pre-cancer lesion being present.
Dr Nedjai said the self-sampling was ‘pretty accurate’, but was not quite as effective as the current smear testing programme. ‘It will be soon, with improvement we’ll get there,’ she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Scientists believe the test could be used in two ways – as a secondary test on HPV-positive women, or as a stand-alone test, where it correctly identified 85% of samples that were pre-cancerous.
Although experts say larger trials are still needed before the NHS could decide whether to offer it to patients – with Dr Nedjai saying the S5 test needed to be tried on more than 10,000 women before that could happen – the research has been called ‘promising’ and a potential ‘game-changer’ by charities.
Dr Nedjai, the director of the Molecular Epidemiology Lab at Queen Mary University of London, predicted the at-home tests could be available via the NHS in approximately five years.
Even then, it would only be one option for women though, as researchers believe smear tests would likely continue in their current form – at least at first. This is because, as Dr Nedjai explained, the initial use of self-sampling would likely be for ‘women who do not attend clinic after a screening invitation’.
The director continued:
In the longer term, self-sampling could become the standard method for all screening tests. The study indicated that women much preferred doing a test at home than attending a doctor’s surgery.
We expect the self-sampling test to improve acceptance rates for cervical cancer screening, as well as reducing costs to health services and improving the performance of screening programmes.
With smear test attendance in England at its lowest in 21 years – NHS figures show just 71.4% of those who received an invitation in 2017-18 attended their appointments – it’s clear more needs to be done to encourage women to attend their appointments.
While smear tests play a pivotal role in detecting cervical cancer, many people are too embarrassed to bear all to a nurse – whether it’s because they’re scared of the unknown or because they’ve heard ‘horror stories’ of other people’s appointments.
It’s therefore vital that we break past this stigma and encourage women to attend their cervical screening appointments – but if this isn’t necessarily possible and the attendance figures keep dropping, it’s great this new home test might be able to provide an alternative in the future.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, and want to speak to someone in confidence contact Macmillan’s Cancer Support Line on 0808 808 00 00 (Monday – Friday, 9am – 8pm).
A Broadcast Journalism Masters graduate who went on to achieve an NCTJ level 3 Diploma in Journalism, Lucy has done stints at ITV, BBC Inside Out and Key 103. While working as a journalist for UNILAD, Lucy has reported on breaking news stories while also writing features about mental health, cervical screening awareness, and Little Mix (who she is unapologetically obsessed with).