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New technology could replace Pap smear in cervical cancer screening

New technology could replace Pap smear in cervical cancer screening
New technologies may replace current tests for HPV and cervical cancers, researchers say. Photo by Julio César Velásquez Mejía/Pixabay

March 30 (UPI) -- New nanotechnologies and machine learning approaches could soon replace the Pap smear as the primary method for cervical cancer screening because it they more accurately identify women with the disease, according to an analysis published Tuesday by Biophysics Reviews.

The innovations could be particularly useful in developing countries, as well as in regions of the United States, and anywhere that access to healthcare and cancer treatment services is limited, the researchers said.

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"Similar to COVID-19 testing, we have great technology in places like the United States that does not work well enough in other countries," co-author Hyungsoon Im said in a press release.

"This is why there is great motivation to find next-generation, affordable technology to address this problem," said Im, a biomedical engineer at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

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Cervical cancer is the world's fourth-most common cancer, with more than 500,000 cases diagnosed every year, according to the World Health Organization.

Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV, for which there is a vaccine, at least in countries such as the United States, the agency said.

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Detecting pre-cancerous changes in the body, including HPV, allows doctors a chance to cure what has the potential to be a deadly cancer, said co-author Dr. Cesar Castro.

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Until now, the primary method for identifying these changes has been the Pap smear, which was introduced in the 1940s.

The test, however, is "subjective" and not always reliable, with about 80% accuracy in detecting developing cervical cancer, but only if administered regularly, according to Castro.

The tests also require high-quality laboratories, properly trained clinical doctors and repeated screenings for maximum accuracy and efficiency. These conditions are not widely available in many countries or even in low-income and remote parts of wealthier nations, he said.

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Newer methods range from existing DNA testing and other Pap smear alternatives to next-generation technologies that use recent advances in nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, according to Castro and his colleagues.

One technique involves screening for HPV with tiny beads made of biological material that, after being applied to a cervical smear sample, form a diamond shape when they come in contact with the virus.

Normally, these shapes are detected with powerful microscopes but, when those microscopes are not available, a mobile phone app, built through machine learning, can be used to read them.

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"The Pap smear has done wonders in terms of reducing mortality from a cancer that is very treatable when caught early and almost invariably fatal when it is caught late," co-author Dr. Cesar Castro said in a press release.

"And it is not even a great test ... [because] the untrained eye, or relatively untrained eye, can miss cancers." said Castro, an oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

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