New cervical cancer test could end smear tests and allow women to screen at home

  • Video report by ITV News Health Correspondent Emily Morgan

Smear tests could soon become a thing of the past, following the development of a new urine test.

The non-invasive test could help save thousands of lives by detecting women's risk of cervical cancer - without the need to visit a doctor.

Researchers have developed a urine test to identify pre-cancer lesions by analysing samples that can be collected by women in their own home.

The "self-sampling" test proved popular with women taking part in the study, meaning it is likely to improve participation in cervical screening programmes if made widely available, researchers believe.

Dr Belinda Nedjai, director of the Molecular Epidemiology Lab at Queen Mary University of London, said: "The initial use of self-sampling is likely to be for women who do not attend clinic after a screening invitation and countries without a cervical cancer screening programme."

It is hoped more women will take the test if they can do it in their own home. Credit: PA

She 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."

Dr Nedjai told the 2019 NCRI Cancer Conference in Glasgow that the study was the largest to test for the S5 methylation classifier, a chemical change to one of the four DNA base letters that make up the human genetic code.

The test looks at the methylation of four HPV (human papillomavirus) types most strongly associated with cancer and a human gene to calculate a risk score.

In earlier research, they found that the test, when performed on cervical samples taken by healthcare professionals, was 100% accurate at detecting invasive cervical cancer, and 93% accurate at detecting pre-cancer in women who had an HPV positive test.

In the new study, 620 women with abnormal smear tests or positive HPV results were asked to provide vaginal samples collected themselves using swabs.

The researchers extracted and analysed the DNA in the lab and generated S5 scores.

In urine samples, the S5 test was better at correctly identifying women who did have pre-cancer lesions than existing HPV tests.

The S5 test correctly identified high-risk pre-cancerous cells in 96% of samples compared with 73% with an HPV-16 or 18 test.

They believe it could be used in two ways – as a secondary test on HPV-positive women, or as a standalone test, where it correctly identified 85% of samples that were pre-cancerous.

Dr Nedjai added: “We are currently working on new markers to try to improve the accuracy of the classifier even further, but these findings represent an advance in cervical cancer screening, especially for women who do not attend the clinic, such as older women, or women who find the smear test too painful or who do not have access to a screening programme in their country. We think it’s promising.”

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

The new test could change the way cancer is detected. Credit: PA

The initial symptoms of cervical cancer, according to the NHS, include bleeding during or after sex, between you periods and after the menopause.

Advanced cervical cancer symptoms include pain in the lower back or pelvis.

Patients may also experience severe pain in the side or back near the kidneys.

Needing to use the toilet more of than normal, or losing control of bodily functions, as well as blood in urine can also be symptoms.

The NHS advises to contact a medical professional as soon as symptoms appear.